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1991 marked a pivotal year in the career of Yannick Noah: The flamboyant Frenchman guided his nation to the Davis Cup championship in his rookie campaign as he began to transition away from his storied playing career.
As he toiled away outside of the world’s Top 100 that year, Noah encountered the future of clay-court tennis in the second round of the Italian Open, 20-year-old Sergi Bruguera. The Spaniard thrashed his older opponent in straight sets, and two years later would go on to win the French Open, 10 years after Noah’s stunning run to the title.
Bruguera halted the reign of Jim Courier in a five-set final as the American was bidding to become the first player to win three consecutive titles at Roland Garros in more than a decade.
Those three French Open champions will stage a reunion of sorts in the Davis Cup semifinals this weekend as captains of their national teams. Each of them, along with Zeljko Krajan, captain of the Croatian squad, will look to call upon their past experiences as they bid for the title.
After that triumph in 1991, France tacked on titles in 1996 and 2001 before enduring a 16-year title drought, despite having one of the deepest reserves of players to call upon over that time. Last year, France finally won again as it defeated Belgium 3-2 for the championship, giving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet—the nation’s standard-bearers for a decade—their first title.
From playing a nearly hobbled Henri Leconte back in the 1991 final to leaving Nicolas Mahut out of the lineup in last year’s final, Noah has never been afraid to defy convention.
His counterpart in the semifinal this year has taken a more straightforward approach—while also dealing with some unexpected events along the way.
In his rookie campaign, Bruguera has guided Spain to the Davis Cup semifinals, winning closer-than-expected home ties against Great Britain and Germany in the first two rounds. The quarterfinals marked the return of Rafael Nadal to the team, but the world No. 1 won’t be available for the semifinals due to the knee issue that forced him out of the US Open.
This will be Bruguera’s first away tie and one played on a surface other than clay as France has chosen an indoor hard court for the contest. Bruguera’s top two singles players, Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut, have actually had their best results on hard courts and could pose a serious challenge to last year’s Davis Cup hero Lucas Pouille, who has been in a slump of late, and Gasquet.
On the other side of the draw, Courier—who has been captain of the US team since 2010—will try to guide the US into the final for the first time in his tenure. The Americans have gone more than a decade without a title in the team event they once dominated, and this is only their second semifinal appearance since Courier’s been at the helm. Already, the three-time Davis Cup champion has had to adjust his lineup before the first ball in competition has been struck, replacing Jack Sock with Ryan Harrison in the lineup.
Each of the players on the U.S. squad have had stellar moments on clay courts the past several years, but will that be enough to overcome the host nation Croatia on a surface they chose to further tilt the odds in their favor? Over the past several years, Krajan has built an impressive resume as a coach and Davis Cup captain.
While his singles career as a player stalled out due to injury, he’s shown that he’s one of the sharper minds in the game. In 2016, he guided Marin Cilic and Croatia to the final, where they fell to Argentina, 3-2. This year, the team boasts Top-20-caliber talent in both singles and doubles, and is presumably a heavy favorite.
However, in Davis Cup, it’s the subtle nuances that can make a difference in the outcome of a tie. How the longtime leaders such as Noah, Courier and Krajan, and the neophyte Bruguera manage those will go far in determining their teams’ fortunes.