France kept the Davis Cup alive as a contest for one more day with victory for Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut in the doubles, awakening renewed hope in the passionate local supporters after the huge disappointment of defeat by Croatia in both the opening singles matches.
Herbert and Mahut overcame Mate Pavić and Ivan Dodig 6-4 6-4 3-6 7-6(3) in an enthralling encounter which took 3 hours 38 minutes before the French pair finally succeeded in subduing the determined resistance of their tenacious opponents, to reduce Croatia’s advantage in the 2018 final to 2-1.
For Mahut it was a particularly emotional experience. His tears of joy and relief this time matched the tears of bitter sadness which he admits to shedding a year ago, when he was left out of the previous Davis Cup final. Richard Gasquet came in to partner Herbert to a doubles win that proved crucial in France beating Belgium 3-2 to become the 2017 champions.
Simply stretching the 2018 final into a third day with the title yet to be decided seemed like quite an achievement for France, as Pavić and Dodig fully tested the clay court skills of Herbert and Mahut, the current French Open doubles title-holders after victory at Roland Garros this summer. In the slightly different conditions on the temporary indoor clay court in Lille, the home pair eventually imposed themselves.
Much as the wonderfully raucous crowd of 22,910 inside the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille cheered Herbert and Mahut’s win, the task for France remains an immense one. No team has successfully come back from 0-2 down in the Davis Cup final since the abolition of the challenge round in 1972.
The French players still face the daunting challenge of beating both Marin Čilić and Borna Ćorić in the reverse singles to complete their recovery and retain the Davis Cup. That would appear highly unlikely based on the impressive performances of Croatia’s 2 leading players in straight sets wins on the opening day.
For all of Čilić and Ćorić’s undoubted qualities, there is also an enormous dilemma among the French regarding which players to send out against them. After a disastrous start to the 2018 final in the initial singles matches, described in a headline on the front cover of France’s daily sports newspaper ‘L’Équipe’ as “Black Friday in Lille”, changes in personnel are anticipated.
Neither of the home side’s two originally-nominated singles players were likely to feature again this weekend after leaving the court on the opening day. Their respective comprehensive capitulations left Jérémy Chardy stripped of all self-belief, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga limping with a groin injury which he suffered in the 3rd set against Čilić.
Tsonga required a medical time-out, and there was a serious doubt on the part of the French medical team about whether he was even able to continue that match to a finish. The player himself decided to try and struggle on, but just five games later the duel was concluded by Čilić, who had already been two sets ahead and a break of serve up at the time.
Tsonga had battled well until his mobility was hampered, but Čilić was still significantly superior, And there was something of a case of history repeating itself. In the Davis Cup final four years ago, on the same court, Tsonga aggravated an arm injury in his opening singles, losing to Stan Wawrinka and having to withdraw from the rest of the tie.
He has missed most of this year with further physical conditioning problems, being out for seven months with a knee injury, and even this month just before the Davis Cup final he was reported to be nursing a shoulder injury. However, France’s non-playing captain, Yannick Noah, has left himself few options to replace Tsonga.
Noah kept back the top-ranked singles player in the French squad, Lucas Pouille, to be fresh for the deciding singles rubbers, hoping for a repeat of the 2017 final when Pouille secured the winning point for France against Belgium. But he is the only proven high-level singles player available now for France and cannot on his own take the place of both Tsonga and Chardy.
Chardy was shown up by Ćorić to not be quite up to the demands of a Davis Cup final, and so Pouille will play instead of him against Čilić. If something remarkable happens and a fifth rubber is required, then one of the successful French doubles team will have to come in, with Herbert considered the stronger candidate on recent singles form.