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Home   News   Tebbutt: David vs. Goliath

Tebbutt: David vs. Goliath

Nov 21, 2017
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

The 2017 Davis Cup final to be played in Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, France, this weekend is mostly about one man – David Goffin.

He will lead Belgium against a stacked French team and, if he’s not playing somewhere near his best, the best-of-five match tie could be a mismatch.

After his impressive showing in reaching Sunday’s final of the ATP Finals in London, the 26-year-old (27 in two weeks) no. 7-ranked Goffin is currently playing better than the two presumed French singles players – no. 15 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and no. 18 Lucas Pouille.

It’s almost imperative that he win both his singles and then the Belgians get another singles win out of no. 2 Steve Darcis (76) or, less likely, in doubles against the strong and experienced French pairing of Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut. Ruben Bemelmens (118) and Arthur De Greef (187) are the two other nominated Belgian players.

This will be 105th Davis Cup final with France hoping for a tenth title in the competition that dates back to a challenge between the USA and the British Isles in 1900 for a silver salver donated by one of the competitors – Harvard student Dwight Davis.

Belgium has been a finalist twice – 1904 and 2015 – and is hoping for a first title which would make it the 16th nation to win the Davis Cup.

The Belgians began the 2017 season with an unlikely 3-1 victory over Germany in Frankfurt on a hard court – all the more unlikely because Goffin, taking a break, did not play. Darcis (above left with Goffin and captain Johan Van Herck) saved the day with wins over Philipp Kohlschreiber – 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(5) in the opening singles – and then a big 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(8) upset of Sascha Zverev in the fourth and deciding match.

Equally key was a surprise doubles result as Joris De Loore and Ruben Bemelmens defeated the Zverev bothers, Sascha and Mischa, by a 6-3, 7-6(4), 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 score.

Photo courtesy: TennisTV.com

In the quarter-finals at home on a hard court in Charleroi, Goffin was back playing and the home side beat Italy 3-1. Goffin won both his singles over Andreas Seppi and Paolo Lorenzi without losing a set.

In the semifinals in September at home on clay in Brussels the week after the US Open, the Belgians edged Australia 3-2 after trailing 2-1. Goffin defeated Nick Kyrgios 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the fourth match and the gritty Darcis outplayed Jordan Thompson 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 in the decisive fifth match.

France, under the captaincy of Yannick Noah for the second consecutive year, had an easier trek to the final – beating Japan, without its best player Kei Nishikori, 3-0 in Tokyo in the first round, Britain, without Andy Murray, 3-0 at home in Rouen in the quarter-finals and then taking out Serbia, without Novak Djokovic, 3-1 in the semifinals in Lille.

After losing the ATP Final 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to Grigor Dimitrov on Sunday, Goffin, who hits considerably above his weight (150 pounds) said about the approaching final in Lille, “it will be different next week. There were a lot of Bulgarian (Dimitrov) supporters tonight (Sunday at the O2 Arena). But even if there were more people cheering for Grigor, it was a nice atmosphere. Next week it will be different – playing against France in France in a 27,000-seat stadium. There will be a lot of noise. I’m going to try to get a little rest to be ready for another difficult week.”

In terms of head-to-heads, Goffin trails Tsonga 4-2 but they have split their past four meetings and he’s 0-3 against Pouille. Darcis, 33 and a lifetime over-achiever in Davis Cup, is 0-0 with both Tsonga and Pouille – although he did play Tsonga at a Challenger in 2002, but retired leading 3-2 in the first set.

The charismatic Noah, who led France to Davis Cup triumphs in 1991 and 1996 in his first go-round as captain, had his men doing yoga on the first day of practice in Lille last week. Apparently some players were more enamoured than others with the experience.

The 57-year-old Noah is well aware of Goffin and his current form. “He’s playing really well now and he’s raised the bar,” the 1983 Roland Garros champion said about the smooth-stroking Belgian. “Our players are aware of that and won’t think we’re big favourites because we’re playing against one of the best players of the end of this season.”

Photo courtesy: @DavisCup

With the depth of the French team – Richard Gasquet (31) and Julien Benneteau (57) are in Lille as possible alternates – Goffin is in a David vs. Goliath situation. He played sensational tennis in London defeating World No. 1 Rafael Nadal in round-robin action and then no. 2 Roger Federer in the semifinals.

His success has moved him up to a career-high ranking of no. 7 and he will have to play up to that level to give Belgium a chance on the Rebound Ace hard court in Lille.

The Davis Cup is being carried this weekend in Canada on Friday at 8 a.m. (ET) and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. (ET) on Sportsnet One. Unfortunately, there’s no doubles coverage on Saturday.

Canada begins its 2018 Davis Cup World Group campaign away against no. 4-seeded Croatia the week after the Australian Open from February 2-4.

 

SEASON FINALE FALLOUT

Photo courtesy: TennisTV.com

In a strange year marked by 2016’s No. 1 (Andy Murray) and no. 2 (Novak Djokovic) basically being non-factors and now ranking no. 16 and no. 12 respectively, Grigor Dimitrov’s victory in last Sunday’s final of the ATP Finals in London was a surprise but not an absolute shocker.

Roger Federer (two Slams and three Masters 1000s) and Rafael Nadal (two Slams and two Masters 1000s) had monopolized the main events in 2017 but couldn’t quite extend their success to the fifth most important title on tour – the ATP Finals.

Photo courtesy: TennisTV.com

Nadal showed up but it was always questionable whether his balky right knee would hold up – and it didn’t in an opening-match loss to David Goffin. The 31-year-old Spaniard had to subsequently withdraw but deserves praise for playing even though he probably knew he wasn’t fit. He was able to collect the ATP trophy for finishing No. 1 but may have compromised his preparation for next year when he re-aggravated the knee.

There’s not that much time before the 2018 season begins for Rafa in Brisbane – but hopefully enough for him to rest, rehab and recalibrate for a fresh start.

Photo courtesy: TennisTV.com

Logically a healthy Federer should have won the ATP Finals (for a seventh time) and things certainly seemed headed that way when he went undefeated in the round-robin portion and took the first set of the semifinal 6-2 over Goffin. But even the GOAT can have lapses and he definitely dipped in the second set and was unable to rekindle in the third as Goffin played inspired tennis to win for the first time in five tries over Federer by a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 score.

There had to be doubts among the other players about how committed Goffin, with the Davis Cup final vs. France looming and him being a vital part of the Belgian squad, was in London after losing 6-0, 6-2 to Dimitrov in his second match and then falling behind 0-3, love-15 in his third match against Dominic Thiem. But he immediately won 15 points in a row to take control and oust the antsy Austrian 6-4, 6-1 and then rallied in sets two and three to beat an unsuspecting and gradually out-of-sorts Federer.

In the final, Goffin was probably the better player – certainly the more aggressive one as he hit 37 winners to just 20 for the cautious Dimitrov. But he got a little tired, as he later admitted, in the middle of the final set and lost his serve in the sixth game to eventually go down 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to the Bulgarian.

While Dimitrov’s fine showing and resultant no. 3 ranking has prompted much speculation about his doing bigger things in 2018, Tebbutt Tuesday remains skeptical. One thing is certain, the Bulgarian’s oft-noted comparisons to Federer are largely unfounded. Federer has made a career of fearlessly taking it to his opponents at crunch-time. Dimitrov against Goffin was not the initiator, rather he seemed to back off and become more defensive. His consistency helped him prevail over a faltering opponent but that’s rarely a recipe for success on tennis’ grandest stages.

Though he came up short, Goffin deserves kudos for being the more adventurous competitor at the most critical times.

The 2017 ATP Finals were an overall success because of the quality of the matches – fully 11 of the 15 went three sets. That’s important when only one singles match (and a doubles match) is featured in each afternoon and evening session in the 17,500-seat O2 Arena.

Contrast that with the one day during the 2014 ATP Finals at the O2 when Novak Djokovic defeated Marin Cilic 6-1, 6-1 and Stan Wawrinka beat Tomas Berdych 6-1, 6-1. That was a star-crossed year – only four of the 14 matches (Federer withdrew from the final with Djokovic because of a back issue) went three sets there was an inordinate amount of one-sided tennis – and no final at all.

The take-away from the 2017 ATP Finals is that everyone seems excited about all the injured players returning and making 2018 a very interesting year. It’s naive to believe Murray (hip) and Djokovic (elbow), Wawrinka (knee) etc. are all going to actually come back at the top of their games, if they come back at all.

Photo courtesy: TennisTV.com

It may well be that they won’t be what they once were and there could be an opening for a multi-talented younger group that includes Jack Sock (25), Nick Kyrgios (22), Sascha Zverev (20), and double 2017 ATP award winner Denis Shapovalov (18). Or maybe one of the mid-range foursome, by the time 2018 rolls around, of Goffin (27), Milos Raonic (27), Dimitrov (26), and Kei Nishikori (28) can make a move?

Tennis fans can now take a communal deep breath for the next six weeks before the future is revealed in January, with the moment of reckoning coming at the Australian Open starting mid-month on the 15th.

 

DON’T TRY THIS

This Francesca Schiavone mishap is only a step away for all tennis players every time they’re on a court. She’s okay but will be out of action for a few weeks.

 

VENUS – LOOKING GOOD

Venus Williams attended her sister Serena’s wedding in New Orleans last week, looking stunning in a bride-like gown.

Feature photo courtesy: TennisTV.com