How France’s new Musketeers finally made depth matter in Davis Cup

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Lucas Pouille clinched the Davis Cup for France, who hadn't won the title since 2001 and had eight players contribute to its cause throughout the year. (AP)

“Three points, four guys,” France’s captain, Yannick Noah, said with a smile after his team’s 3-2 win over Belgium in the Davis Cup final on Sunday. “That’s beautiful.”

Teamwork, depth, a balanced attack, all for one and one for all: That had always been the plan for this generation of Frenchmen. Once touted as a 21st-century version of the country’s multi-Cup-winning Musketeers of the 1920s, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Jeremy Chardy and Julien Benneteau had long been expected to bring France Le Dixieme—its 10th title in the international team competition. The title proved elusive, but the expectations only grew, especially when those singles standouts were joined by a first-rate doubles team in Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. No nation had a bench as deep as France’s.

But the new Musketeers discovered that, even when tennis is putatively a team game, it still helps to have one really good individual. Make that four really good individuals. In 2010, France lost in the final to Serbia, which was led by Novak Djokovic. In 2011, the French lost in the semifinals to the eventual champions from Spain, a team led by Rafael Nadal. In 2014, France lost in the final again, to a Roger Federer-led squad from Switzerland. And in 2015, it lost in the quarterfinals to Great Britain, the eventual champions, who were headed by Andy Murray.

In other words, the Big 4 beats a deep bench every time.

Finally, in 2017, the Musketeers outlasted the big guns. In the quarters, the French beat a Murray-less Great Britain; in the semis, they beat a Djokovic-less Serbia. And while Belgium’s David Goffin dominated them in the final with two straight-set wins over Tsonga and Lucas Pouille, this time France’s deeper bench made the difference it was always supposed to make.

In must-win fourth rubber, David Goffin tops Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to force a decider:

Over the course of the nation’s four ties in 2017, eight players—Gasquet, Simon, Pouille, Chardy, Tsonga, Herbert, Mahut and Benneteau—had a hand in winning points. As Noah said, four of them—Tsonga, Gasquet, Herbert and Pouille—shared the credit over the final weekend. That depth proved especially decisive in the fifth rubber on Sunday.

With the Cup on the line, the Belgians sent out their unlikely stopper, Steve Darcis. While he was ranked just 76th, the man known as The Shark has a nose for blood—he had clinched numerous Cup ties in the past, including two in 2017. But he hadn’t done it against a team whose second-best player, Pouille, is ranked 18th in the world. Pouille overwhelmed Darcis, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. Belgium had the star of the weekend in Goffin, but France had the more balanced attack.

Yet while the French were at home and were due, it never felt like they had a date with destiny; they’d lost too many times before for that. If anything, as the Belgians served at 5-4 in the third set of the doubles rubber on Saturday, an upset appeared to be in the air. Up to that stage, Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore had outplayed Gasquet and Herbert. But the tie would take a 180-degree turn over the course of the next game. Part of it was that France raised its return game; Gasquet in particular came to life, and justified his inclusion on the roster by Noah. But a bigger part of the turnaround came because Bemelmans couldn’t find a first serve. He left the door open, and the French, for once, charged through it.

But the biggest part of that crucial doubles win may have been the presence of the graying, bespectacled, but still indefatigable Noah. The highly-animated 57-year-old is best known for being the last Frenchman to win a major title, at Roland Garros in 1983. But he’s done more for his country as a team captain. In 1991, he guided France to its first Davis Cup in 59 years, and did it again in 1996. In ’97, he captained the country’s Fed Cup team to its first title. Now he has brought the Davis Cup back to France for the first time in 16 years.

Noah made all the tough, but ultimately correct, moves. He broke up Mahut and Herbert in favor of Gasquet, and was rewarded with a doubles win. But rather than use Gasquet again in the singles, he stuck with the struggling Pouille, despite his destruction at the hands of Goffin two days earlier. Noah had supported Pouille for years, and he was rewarded again when Pouille proved to have just the right heavy-hitting game to bully the undersized Darcis around.

Lucas Pouille clinches the Davis Cup for France:

On court, Noah was every bit as valuable, especially during the doubles. With Gasquet and Herbert teetering on the emotional brink in the third set, the captain huffed and puffed and clenched his fists like he was going to blow the whole stadium down. In retrospect, it may have been exactly what the diffident Gasquet has needed his entire career, because he responded by elevating his game beyond the Belgians’. When Noah took the captain’s job two years ago, he said he had a “clear plan” to end France’s “losing culture.” Mission—very quickly—accomplished. If you can will a team to win from the sidelines, Noah did it on Saturday.

“It’s a victory we had been dreaming of,” Noah said. “It’s a united group. It was a tough weekend against a good Belgian team. Lucas played a fantastic final match.”

While Noah gave the current French generation a helpful blast from the past, the 23-year-old Pouille gave it a final push from the future. Slicing his backhand to set up his inside-out forehand, and winning 89 percent of his first-serve points, Pouille was brilliant from start to finish against Darcis, and he betrayed nary a nerve as the crowd chanted his name down the stretch in the third set.

“To have Lucas in his hometown, winning the last game, Davis Cup, playing the way he played—that is so beautiful,” Noah said. “This is when his career is really going to start.”

Pouille could only echo his captain’s sentiments about the victory.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than winning as a team in front of my friends and family,” he said. “Now we’re going to celebrate and enjoy it.”

All for one and one for all—at last, it worked.

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