We tend not to think of the USA and France as rivals in anything other than, periodically, the mutual contempt department. Their food and cultural history may be superior, but we have a better record against Germany in combat, and whoever heard of a great French rock-and-roll band?
The thing is, our points of interest don't really intersect often enough for us to be real competitors at just about anything. The French don't care about baseball anymore than we care about boules. But tennis is a little different. In Davis Cup, our nations have been at each others throats for a long time, neither able to wrestle the other to the ground. The head-to-head is a narrow 8-7 for the USA, but the French are hoping to bring us into a deadlock this weekend in a World Group quarterfinal on their home turf in Monte Carlo.
Wait a second. I thought Monte Carlo was in the independent Principality of Monaco, which is just like a real country except smaller. I guess I'm just one of those ignorant Americans who shuts up and pays his taxes instead of moving to, what would be the equivalent, the Principality of Lubbock?
Anyway, the last time either squad won two ties in a row was 1982 and 1989. In the later of those ties, a World Group quarterfinal, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi led the squad to a 5-0 sweep of a French squad that featured Yannick Noah and the mercurial but not always reliable Henri Leconte.
This year's French force shaped up as a bit like that squad, with solid ATP No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and mercurial but not always reliable No. 14 Gael Monfils. But the USA, alas, had nothing like the one-two punch of McEnroe and Agassi, even if the projected Mardy Fish (No. 9) and John Isner (No. 11) singles line-up was much better than fair to middlin'. It doesn't take genius to work out that the average ranking of the two singles players for each side was No. 10, suggesting a tie that might produce fireworks. But then the fizzle started.
Fish woke up in the middle of the night at about this time last week, scared into a sudden apprehension of his own mortality. Doctor's diagnosed his feeling poorly as a case of "extreme fatigue" and ordered bed rest.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the giant tax dodge — er — Principality of Monaco, Monfils developed a lesion on his left oblique muscle. That may sound like nothing more than a boo-boo, best treated with the application of a Sponge Bob band-aid and a kiss on the forehead. But the pain was bad enough that after examining an MRI, doctors advised Monfils to pull out.
Thus Fish, the elder statesman and No. 1 player on the American squad, was replaced by Ryan Harrison, who will play the first live rubber of his Davis Cup career when he squares off with the French No. 1 Tsonga to open the tie tomorrow. That will be followed by the clash between No. 13 Gilles Simon, the substitute for Monfils, and the original American No. 2, John Isner.
Just how the French end up with a last-minute "substitute" who's ranked higher than the guy he's replacing is a mystery best explained by others, although the obvious answer would be clay-court proficiency.
Simon, you may remember, survived a very tough three-setter against Harrison at Indian Wells, but went down in the next round (the quarterfinals) under relentless bombardment by Isner. That event was on hard courts and the Monte Carlo Country Club is a red-clay facility. But in the opening round of World Group play not so long ago in Switzerland (another small country, but larger and less friendly to smooth operators in aviator shades than is Monaco), Harrison triumphed on red clay in his first-ever Davis Cup match (d. Lammer in the dead rubber after the USA had swept the first three matches) and Isner knocked out Roger Federer — let me repeat, in case you thought you heard wrong: Isner knocked out Roger Federer.
The upshot is that this tie might turn out to be bit more lively than it may have appeared following Fish's withdrawal.
As fiesty and eager as Harrison is, Tsonga is the prohibitive favorite in the first rubber of the tie — and not just on the basis of maturity and experience. He's 9-2 in Davis Cup singles, and one of those losses was a retirement in a dead rubber, the other a defeat inflicted on Tsonga by Rafael Nadal in a Spanish bullring. But being an underdog suits Harrison's nature (It's not just that he's 19 and short on experience; he's also ranked 60 spots below Tsonga, at No. 66) , and the one aspect of his game or nature that has never been questioned is his grit.
When you consider that the pressure on Tsonga will far outweigh whatever home-court advantage he feels in Monaco, you have to leave a bit of a question mark lingering over this one. A few days ago, United States captain Jim Courier took pains to point out that Harrison's Davis Cup rookie experience was valuable, even if the result had no bearing on the outcome.
"Those moments," Courier said, "are still meaningful for him as a player and they are meaningful for us on the bench together because we have a better communication now as a result of having been through a match together and I hope it will help him when he is playing in his two matches here."
Harrison backed that up at the team USA press conference in Monte Carlo today, adding:
"Well, I think I have the advantage of being a practice partner a couple years ago, also being a part of that fantastic tie we had in Switzerland. Like Jim (Courier) said, I played the dead rubber match for me to get out there. We discussed a lot of that stuff in the past. . .We both have a very clear mindset of what has to be done in order to get the job done. We're going to try to go out and execute tomorrow."
The swing match — usually the doubles in a competitive tie — may be the second singles match tomorrow: Isner v. Simon. Both men are at their best on hard courts, although Simon collected four of his nine career titles on clay. Yet Simon has struggle on clay this year, as the original selection of Monfils suggested. Simon won just one match in three tournaments (Acapulco, Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo) while Isner has that upset of Federer to fuel his confidence.
In the doubles, the French squad of Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau will be tough; they're 3-1 in Davis Cup play (the stalwart Llodra is 18-6, career). But Bob and Mike Bryan have been to see the elephant. They're the most successful doubles team of all time and are 19-2 in Davis Cup and unlikely to have a letdown.
Isner has already made it clear that this court renders a much more reliable and true bounce than the one in Fribourg a few weeks ago. That will help Isner if he has enough game and confidence to control the tone of the rallies, win or lose. The other wild-card factor is the weather, which is unpredictable at this time of year. Right now, it appears that it will be cold and wet — not as much of an advantage for the French as one might think, given that Tsonga is less than famous for his stamina and patience.
It's hard to look beyond those first three matches, but should the rubber still be live Sunday, Isner will be up against Tsonga in the battle of the No. 1s. Should Isner get through that, Harrison would be in a position to clinch the tie for his team — that's a long way from being the guy whose only Davis Cup win was in a dead rubber.
Starting in 1927, at the dawn of the era dominated by France's legendary "Four Musketeers" (Rene LaCoste, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet) , the French began to turn the tables on the USA, which had lost just one tie among 10 in their two previous meetings. France won five in a row between 1927 and '32, each of those a final (at the time, the Challenge Round was still in effect). The next time the teams met, in 1982, the USA swept — again with John McEnroe leading the charge.
Since then, the teams have taken turns winning. The fact that the USA won the last time they met (in the 2008 World Group quarterfinals) isn't the only reason that the French are likely to prevail in Monte Carlo.