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Sports

Davis Cup: France seek otherworld elements to see off Croatia

media Yannick Noah has guided France to three triumphs as captain of the Davis Cup team. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

A year ago France started their hunt for a 10th Davis Cup trophy as the favourites against a Belgium side utterly reliant on their top player David Goffin. France prevailed 3-2 after the French number one Lucas Pouille obliterated Steve Darcis 6-3, 6-1, 6-0.

However, on Friday, 23 November, 2018, the French team will begin the defence of their crown as the underdogs.

Croatia enter the clash with one player well ensconced in the top 10 and another on its fringes. France? Their leading man, Pouille, is ranked 32nd in the world. And he is in such abject form that the France skipper Yannick Noah has chosen Jeremy Chardy to launch the bid to retain the title.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a former world number five, but now reeling at 259 after injuries, will then play Croatia's number one Marin Cilic.

Chardy, 31, and number 40 in the world, will need to forage into the depths of his talent and experience to overcome Borna Coric in the first match in Lille in northern France.

The 22-year-old is having the time of his life. He beat the legendary Roger Federer on grass in the summer to lift the Halle title and then underlined his credentials by seeing off the veteran Swiss in October in straight sets in the semi-final at the Shanghai Masters.

Such performances have catapulted him to 12th in the world. On paper he should win. But the Davis Cup is a competition that defies the form book and dredges up herculean feats from its participants.

France will be in front of 26,000 partisans at the specially constructed indoor clay court at Lille’s football ground in northern France.

Croatia’s number one, Marin Cilic, acknowledged that the roar of the crowd could fray fragile nerves in the Croatia team.

“Borna and I have been playing well this year,” said the world number seven. “But France have a strong team and they will be in front of their own fans.”

France will also tap into the team spirit as distilled by Noah. "I chose Jeremy and Jo because I know that Lucas is ready to play," said Noah. "We've played every single one of our ties with different players. That is our strength. This special ability we have for any player to come in at any moment and perform."

In a world of preening egos and self-centred quests for supremacy, yielding to a collective is inhabitual. But it worked wonders in 2017 as Noah used the formula to steer France to their first trophy since 2001.

Croatia, beaten finalists in 2016, have a smaller pool of talent and are hoping for their second success in the 118 year history of the men’s team competition.

If France upset the odds they will move third on the all-time winners list ahead of Great Britain but behind Australia and the United States who have 28 and 32 titles respectively.

Legend

Victory would also allow Noah to join Neale Fraser and Niki Pilic as coaches who have steered teams to four victories.

There’s also a tinge of nostalgia about the 2018 final. It will be the last in the present format of five sets. From 2019, the competition will be renamed the Davis Cup finals and be played out over one week at one venue. Madrid will stage the first extravaganza of the new era.

Eighteen teams will descend on the Spanish capital and will be divided into six groups of three. Each national side will play two ties comprising two singles and a doubles match over the best of three sets.

The six group winners and two best runners-up will advance to the last eight and from then it is a straight knockout competition to discern the champion.

A far cry from the early days of the tournament when Harvard University student Dwight Davis dreamed up the concept. Back then in 1900, it was called the International Lawn Tennis Challengeand only open to United States and Great Britain.

The Americans won the inaugural competition on the grass courts at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts. They also claimed the second in 1902. On that occasion the victors lifted a silver salad bowl bought by Davis for the competition. The British hoisted it for the first time a year later.

Players from 13 other countries have brandished the bowl since 1903. Logic suggests Croatia as the 2018 champions. But the Davis Cup was never about something so prosaic.

 

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