Croatia is heading for victory in the 2018 Davis Cup after taking a 2-0 lead over France with impressive wins by Marin Čilić and Borna Ćorić on the first day of the final at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille. Both came through in straight sets to subdue the initially partisan and vociferous home crowd.
First Ćorić beat Jérémy Chardy 6-2 7-5 6-4 before Čilić defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3 7-5 6-4, with both the Croatian players proving themselves as dominant as the eventual scores indicate – and entirely as their current much higher rankings in comparison to their opponents would suggest should be inevitable.
Čilić is an established top 10 player and outside contender at most of the Grand Slam tournaments which he enters. Ćorić has risen rapidly this summer to the level where no other nation now has a second competitor ranked as highly as his current position of 12 at the end of the tennis year. Together they are becoming unbeatable.
To counteract such opposition strength, France’s non-playing captain, Yannick Noah, had to try and find a different approach, insisting on playing the final on an indoor clay court in French tennis’s favourite football stadium, and selecting Chardy as something of a wildcard pick to test the Croatians in a way that they would not have expected.
Although Chardy had previously won all 3 of his rubbers on indoor clay courts in this competition, at no stage did he seemed able to live up to his surprising new status as France’s number one singles player for this final. So much so that he lost the opening match in the very first game – and with it almost certainly the Davis Cup too.
His initial service game lasted for 11 minutes and went to 7 deuces before he surrendered it on Ćorić’s third break point. Having led 40-0, Chardy never appeared able to recover subsequently, proving too uneven and erratic to take advantage of his intermittently decent serving and some crowd-pleasing booming forehand drives.
Ćorić increasingly exposed the gap between his own elevated ranking and Chardy’s position at number 40 in the ATP list. And Čilić did very much likewise with Tsonga later, although the Frenchman repeatedly stretched him and made sure that Croatia’s leading man had to be close to his best to dispatch the local fan’s favourite.
That alone is remarkable after Tsonga’s forgettable year, during which injury caused his ranking to slide down to 259, as well as meaning that he was making his 2018 Davis Cup debut in the final, having not been among the 8 players used by France during the run to the Lille showdown with Croatia for the trophy.
However, Tsonga has now had a chance to play in three Davis Cup finals and has so far only managed to win one singles match – against Steve Darcis. That victory of his of course helped France to win the competition last year. But he may well be even more satisfied with his brave if finally futile efforts against Čilić this time.
It was a marked contrast to Chardy’s earlier capitulation, although in many other respects the day’s 2 singles matches were remarkably similar. That goes not least for the scores, 6-2 7-5 6-4 and then 6-3 7-5 6-4. Chardy may have been broken at the start, while Tsonga fought valiantly for the opening 20 minutes, but both first sets ended up lasting exactly 36 minutes.
Both Frenchmen battled back in their 2nd sets, but gave up a late break to undo all their efforts. And the coincidences continued in each 3rd set, with early breaks of serve secured by the 2 Croatians, before a player had to leave the court for a medical time-out in the middle of the set, Ćorić in the first match and Tsonga in the second.
France will fervently hope that the sequence is quickly ended in the doubles, above all because only a Saturday afternoon win will prevent the final being decided a day early. At least the team should have substantial support, as the stadium is sold out for both the weekend days, after not being completely filled for the first day.
The announced attendance of 19,444 on Friday was well below the officially-declared capacity of 26,083 for this year’s Davis Cup final. Whether that has something to do with a lack of faith in Noah’s somewhat idiosyncratic selections, or is indicative of a developing fatigue with the event after three finals in five years in Lille, continues to be debated locally.