A bittersweet preview of the 'last' Davis Cup final, France v. Croatia

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Court Report: Croatia vs. France in the Davis Cup final

 

This will be a bittersweet weekend for tennis fans. The Davis Cup final between France and Croatia, which begins Friday in Lille, promises to provide all of its drama and mayhem we’ve come to expect from this event. But then? No one knows. After 118 years, the sport’s oldest international team competition is tearing itself up by the roots and switching to an entirely new, one-week format. One of the most tradition-conscious events in any sport—how many other sporting events still get the competitors together for official dinners before and after play?—has thrown tradition to the wind.

For now, though, we have France vs. Croatia, and one last chance to savor the old ways. Twelve months ago, France beat Belgium for the title in the same stadium in Lille, and the crowds there should be 20,000 strong again. This time the French have chosen clay, a surface that didn’t work for them when they faced Switzerland in the same location in the 2014 final.

Will it work better this time? As if often the case in finals, this one is difficult to call. Croatia would seem to have the better singles players; France has the more accomplished doubles team. The French captain, Yannick Noah, should be an X-factor in their favor; he has already made an intriguing move by starting Jeremy Chardy in the opening singles on Friday, and holding out his 2017 hero, Lucas Pouille, presumably for a Sunday substitution. The big question of the weekend surrounds the Croat star, Marin Cilic. Is this talented by nerve-ridden player an X-factor for Croatia, or for France? Here’s a look at the match-ups.

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Borna Coric [CRO] vs. Jeremy Chardy [FRA]

Is Chardy the sacrificial lamb, or does captain Noah think he can sneak out a win over an anxious young opponent while also saving his highest-ranked player, Pouille, for Sunday? Noah may be on to something. While Coric is nine years younger than Chardy and ranked 28 spots higher (No. 12 to No. 40), Chardy owns a 2-1 record in their head to head. Coric is just 22, but he’s already proven to be a warhorse for Croatia; he clinched their semifinal over the U.S. in an epically up-and-down five-setter against Frances Tiafoe. But he’s never played a Davis Cup final, in front of a mostly hostile audience of 20,000. This is a step-up match, and a possible springboard for Coric. But it’s also a risk worth taking for Noah.

Marin Cilic [CRO] vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga [FRA]

Cilic and Tsonga have faced off seven times as pros, and Tsonga has won five of those matches. This is the first time they’ll play in Davis Cup, a format that each has plenty of experience with: Cilic is 27-11 in singles for Croatia; Tsonga is 21-8 in singles for France. On paper, this encounter pits the physically uncertain vs. the mentally unsure. Tsonga was sidelined with an injury for much of 2018, and there has been word that he hurt his shoulder recently. Cilic, meanwhile, has struggled to close out matches this season, and in the final against Argentina two years ago, he surrendered a two-set lead against Juan Martin del Potro in the crucial fourth rubber. The entire tie could come down to how Cilic handles the pressure of closing out his matches.

Ivan Dodig/Mate Pavic [CRO] vs. Pierre Hugues-Herbert/Nicolas Mahut [FRA]

This is the first, and perhaps the only, match in which the French are clear-cut favorites. Mahut and Hugues-Herbert are an elite team who have partnered together for years, and have won three of the four majors. Just as importantly, they’ve also provided France with a winning doubles point in each of the three previous rounds this season. Dodig is also a stalwart of the doubles tour, and he has helped give Croatia the doubles point twice in 2018. But on clay, in Lille, this will be an uphill sled for the Croats.

Marin Cilic [CRO] vs. Jeremy Chardy [FRA]

Depending on the score after Saturday, and the form of his singles players on Friday, this could be where Noah substitutes Pouille. He’ll have fresh legs, and he’ll have good memories of Lille, where he clinched the Cup for France 12 months ago. But whether it’s Chardy or Pouille, Cilic will have the winning record against either of his opponents.

Borna Coric [CRO vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga [FRA]

A fifth rubber featuring Coric would be fitting. Not only did he win one against the U.S. in the semifinals, he won two deciders for Croatia in 2016. Would he face Tsonga or Pouille in this one? He’ll probably be hoping for Pouille: Coric is 0-1 vs. Tsonga, and 2-0 against Pouille, including a three-set win just a few weeks ago in Vienna.

By then, though, late on Sunday, we’ll have been through three days of Davis Cup drama, and everything will look a little different, in ways that we can’t foresee, from how it looks now.

Let’s savor every last moment of it while we can.

Winner: France


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