There could not be a more suitable host for the last Davis Cup Final than France. The affection for the great old trophy remains as strong as ever among the French, and close to world record crowds for competitive tennis will again gather in Lille for the 3-day contest against Croatia this weekend.
That enthusiasm is wonderfully still in evidence in 2018. Nowhere else in world could equal the French fondness for “le Saladier d’argent” – “the silver salad bowl”, as they call the biggest prize in the world for men’s team tennis. The demand for tickets for this year’s final in France has once more been absolutely enormous.
So much so, that the French Tennis Federation, FFT, are yet again using a football stadium for the final. Or rather a rugby stadium more recently, since it was a rugby union international between France and Argentina last Saturday evening which was the sporting contest preceding the Davis Cup Final – and which delayed preparations for the tennis.
This too has a pleasing historical symmetry to it, as the 1st Davis Cup Final in 1900 was staged at a cricket club, with the United States meeting Great Britain (competing as the “British Isles”) at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts. In reality that was also a tennis club, of course, and tennis continues to be played there now, not cricket.
Nevertheless, it is indicative of the competition’s idiosyncrasies, present from the start to the finish 118 years later. From a cricket club to a football / rugby stadium. And this year’s final, with the retractable roof closed over the Stade Pierre Mauroy, should also typify the best of the Davis Cup on the court.
The 2018 final is not overshadowed by the presence of one of the big 4, having repeatedly this century been dominated by the efforts of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to in turn add the “World Cup of men’s tennis” to their lists of successes. However, it is still being contested by 2 excellent teams.
France and Croatia last met in another World Cup final, football’s version in Russia this summer. The French would dearly love their tennis players to emulate the nation’s footballers in winning again, especially as they have the advantage of being the hosts this time. But it is almost impossible to predict the outcome between 2 evenly-matched squads.
Croatia have 2 players currently among the top 20 in the ATP World Rankings, with Marin Čilić well established in the top 10. France had Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille similarly highly placed up to the end of last year, although both have fallen back lately. And both countries have also nominated seriously good specialist doubles players.
As so often in the Davis Cup, the outcome of the last final may well depend on the Saturday afternoon doubles. Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut won the French Open this year, and reached the final last weekend at the ATP Finals in London. Mate Pavić was part of the beaten pair in that Roland Garros final, but took the 2018 Australian Open.
Pavić has been playing with Oliver Marach on the ATP World Tour, but he has the 2015 French Open doubles champion, Ivan Dodig, as a potential partner on the Croatian team. 2 years ago in Zagreb, Dodig combined with Čilić to win the doubles in straight sets, but Croatia’s leading player then lost in the crucial singles and Argentina took the Davis Cup.
That 2016 final was played on an indoor hard court. This time the French have chosen to prepare a clay court for the contest in Lille. The decision was only taken after extensive discussions – and reported disagreements. Not surprisingly, as France has lost all 4 of its home Davis Cup finals when electing to play indoors on clay, in 1982, 1999, 2002 and 2014.
The latter was also staged at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, with Federer and Switzerland proving too strong on that occasion. Last year back on the same site in Lille, the French used an indoor hard court and beat Belgium. For 2018 and the 3rd Davis Cup Final in 5 years at the venue, Yannick Noah had the ultimate say on the surface as France’s non-playing captain.
The main aim has been to nullify the threat posed by Čilić, by far the best current player among the finalists. The use of clay has also infuriated the Croats, as it has substantially delayed the availability of the match court for practice this week, taking much longer than a basic hard court to lay down, and further complicated by the conversion from last Saturday’s rugby.
The ITF had to issue a special dispensation to waive the usual rules on court opening, with temporary facilities having had to be provided elsewhere for the teams’ initial training sessions. How it affects the contest itself will be another intriguing aspect to a fascinating tennis occasion. Čilić’s response may be key, coming straight from the hard court of the ATP Finals.
Čilić has never yet won the Davis Cup, and he says that he has never forgotten the pain of losing the 2016 final, for which he seems to feel personally responsible. Having triumphed at the 2014 US Open, he is the only winner of a Grand Slam singles title among this weekend’s competitors in Lille, as well as being presently the highest ranked on either side.
What Čilić makes of the pre-final mind games will not be unimportant, as, on the eve of the opening day, Noah produced a late surprise in leaving out France’s top-ranked player at the moment in Pouille, who was the Davis Cup Final hero a year ago when winning the deciding rubber to secure a 3-2 success for the French.
Instead of Pouille, Noah has nominated Jérémy Chardy, ranked only 40th in the world but with a 100% winning Davis Cup record on indoor clay courts, most recently against Britain’s Dan Evans last year. According to the initial team selections, alongside Chardy in the singles will be Tsonga, who has not won a match since February and has fallen to 259th in the ATP rankings.
Chardy is down to face Borna Ćorić in the first rubber at 2pm local time (1pm GMT). Then Tsonga versus Čilić will follow. In a spectacular atmosphere, on a court surrounded by almost 30,000 spectators, it might well make for as good an afternoon and probably evening of tennis as any experienced so far in 2018.
Croatia has only claimed the old trophy once, in 2005. The French are the defending champions, but has not retained the Davis Cup since 1932, when Roland Garros was setting for the last of 6 successive successes by France, with a team comprising 3 of the legendary “4 Musketeers”, Jean Borotra, Jacques “Toto” Brugnon and Henri Cochet.
France may not have such famous names now, but Lille could be witness to something still quite historic.