More than 100 nations play in Davis Cup, and this year’s 16-country World Group included teams as far away from each other as Japan, Argentina, the U.S. and Croatia. But in the end, the 2017 season has been narrowed to two next-door neighbors, Belgium and France. They’re so close to each other that can practically share a home court for the final. The site of the tie, Lille, is in France, but it's not far from the Belgian border.
The teams and their veteran players know each other well. Each country has challenged for the Cup in recent years, but each has come up just short. In 2014, France lost the final to Switzerland in this same stadium in Lille. In 2015, Belgium was beaten by Great Britain in Ghent. By the end of this weekend, though, the dry spell will have ended for one of these nations: Either France will win its first Davis Cup since 2001, or Belgium will win its first ever.
In 2014, France lost to Switzerland in Lille on red clay; this time captain Yannick Noah has decided to go with a medium-pace hard court instead. I’m not sure that will make a huge difference; there aren’t any one-surface specialists on either squad.
The teams have been selected—with one last-minute surprise, which we’ll get to—and the draws have been made. Let’s see how the final weekend of 2017 might play out.
David Goffin (BEL) vs. Lucas Pouille (FRA)
This matchup provides France with an opportunity to make a big statement early. Goffin is Belgium’s anchor, and the highest-ranked singles player on either team. But in Pouille, France has the perfect obstacle: He’s 3-0 against Goffin.
Goffin is 19-3 in Davis Cup singles matches, and he has been brilliant down the stretch this year. But Pouille also won a big hard-court tournament this fall, in Vienna. If he can up his record to 4-0 against Goffin, France will be in the driver’s seat.
Steve Darcis (BEL) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)
If Goffin is this tie’s most important player, Darcis is its wild card. He’s 33 years old and ranked just 76th, but no one smells blood in Davis Cup like the Shark. He’s 22-9 in singles, and he’s already pulled off two tie-clinching wins in 2017, against Germany and Australia. But the 32-year-old Tsonga is no Davis Cup slouch, either; he’s 20-7 in singles, and he won two matches in France’s semifinal with Serbia. Somehow, Tsonga and Darcis have never faced each other at the ATP level.
Ruben Bemelmans/Joris de Loore (BEL) vs. Richard Gasquet/Pierre-Hugues Herbert
Here’s the surprise I mentioned earlier. After watching his players work out this week, Noah put Gasquet on the team instead of Nicolas Mahut. This has the effect of breaking up Herbert and Mahut, a perennial top doubles team, but it also gives Noah a higher-quality singles player if he needs a substitute on Sunday. It’s a risk: Bemelman and de Loore aren’t well known, but they beat Sascha and Mischa Zverev in the first round this year, and pushed the Italians to a fifth-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinals.
Goffin vs. Tsonga
On Sunday, the reverse singles will begin with a battle between the tie’s two heavyweights. Tsonga is 4-2 against Goffin, and he won their only meeting of 2017, in three sets, in the Rotterdam final. It’s easy to imagine a pumped-up Tsonga riding the home-court energy to a tie-ending win over a weary Goffin. But Goffin won his last heavyweight Davis Cup battle, over Nick Kyrgios, in Belgium’s semifinal final with Australia.
Darcis vs. Pouille
So many Cup-ending matches have an anything-can-happen feel to them. With the big guns facing off in the first Sunday singles, the second match is often between two second-tier players or substitutes—in last year’s final, after Juan Martin del Potro beat Marin Cilic in an epic, it was left to Federico Delbonis and Ivo Karlovic to decide whether Argentina or Croatia would win the title. There could be a similar feel this Sunday, if Darcis-Pouille is a live rubber. The two have never faced each other, and at that stage of the weekend, it’s hard to say who would have the edge.
All we know is that there will be plenty of drama between now and then. This is the Davis Cup final; there’s no better way to close out the year.