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Tebbutt: Final Davis Cup final

Nov 20, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

After the French host Croatia in the Davis Cup final in Lille starting Friday, it’s safe to say the event will never be the same again.

This year’s final, which follows three rounds of year-long competition in the elite 16-nation World Group, will be replaced by an 18-country event to be held in Madrid next November.

There will be one 2019 qualifying round in early February when the traditional home-and-away World Group protocol will be observed but that will be about the only aspect of Davis Cup that will remain after 119 years of the international competition – exception made for four years off during World War I and seven years with no play from 1939 to 1945 during World War II.

Beginning next year in the qualifying round, there will no longer be the customary three-day format of competition featuring two singles on the first day, a doubles on day two and two singles, if needed, on the third and final day.

Now the nation versus nation ties will just be Friday and Saturday or Saturday and Sunday. Canada against Slovakia in Bratislava in the 2019 qualifying round will be Friday/Saturday, February 1-2. At the new Davis Cup Finals in November all nation vs. nation play will be one-day match-ups with two singles and a doubles.

Also going the way of white tennis balls and wooden racquets will be best-of-five set matches. All matches now will be two-out-of-three sets with tiebreaks in the final set. In the qualifying round and zonal competition there will be two singles matches the first day, a doubles first thing on the second day to be followed by two singles matches if required.

A lot of Davis Cup lore can be traced to best-of-five set matches that had no tiebreaks until they were introduced in 1989 in all sets except deciding fifth sets. In 2016, tiebreaks were applied to all sets. So records set up until 2016 are destined to be unequaled in coming years.

Canadians were involved in two of the more significant records. In 1976 in an American Zone tie won 3-0 by Canada in Montreal, Dale Power of Toronto defeated Alvaro Betancur of Colombia 6-4, 22-24, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5. That second set was the longest singles set in Davis Cup history and remains as such although it was equalled in 1987 when Andrei Chesnokov of the Soviet Union beat Michiel Schapers of the Netherlands 24-22, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Another Canadian, Harry Fritz, who also had American citizenship and now works in Palm Desert, California, will forever – unless rules change – hold the record for the longest match in terms of total games. Fritz, uncle of current American player Taylor Fritz, needed 100 games to overcome Jorge Andrew of Venezuela 16-14, 11-9, 9-11, 4-6, 11-9 in a 1982 Davis Cup American Zone tie won 3-1 by Canada in Caracas.

This weekend’s 2018 final on red clay in the Stade Pierre Mauroy, with a capacity of 26,429, is fascinating because the visiting team led by No. 7-ranked Marin Cilic and No. 12 Borna Coric are clearly stronger on paper than France with its possible singles players being No. 32 Lucas Pouille, No. 40 Jeremy Chardy and No. 259 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The French team’s top player Pouille has had a poor year. He started it at No. 15 and now ranks No. 32. He has not won more than one match at a tournament since Stuttgart in June and lost 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 to Coric in Vienna and 6-3, 6-4 to his compatriot Gilles Simon in Paris in his last two matches.

Chardy is more of a fast-court player and Tsonga, historically France’s best player, was out of action (left knee cartilage surgery in April) from his home country events in Montpelier in February until Metz in September. He is just 1-4 since his return at four tournaments this autumn.

France’s three highest-ranked players – No. 26 Richard Gasquet, No. 29 Gael Monfils and No. 30 Simon – are not on the team. Gasquet and Monfils are injured but Simon, who won the title in Metz and went 10-5 through the fall, was not selected by captain Yannick Noah, the 1983 Roland Garros champion.

“There are two reasons,” Noah explained about Simon not being picked. “The first is that Gilles has a way of working that is quite different than mine. We’ve gradually talked it about before and after I made the selection. The second is that I think Gilles is much better on hard courts than on clay.”

Noah’s decision surprised the Croats, with Cilic saying he had expected Simon to be on the team. Noah’s rationale is a debateable because in 243 career matches on clay Simon has a .572 winning percentage, not that different than his .592 over 453 on hard courts.

And he’s really the only current ‘form’ player available to Noah and would unquestionably have been the best on the clay surface in Lille at extending the matches and wearing down his opponents.

France, defending champions after beating Belgium a year ago in Lille, is aiming for its 11th Davis Cup, which includes three won with the charismatic Noah as captain – in 1991 in a memorable triumph in Lyon over the USA (led by Pete Sampras and Agassi), in 1996 away in Malmo over Sweden and last year in Lille against Belgium when he was in his second year back as captain.

As a group the French players, and Noah, are adamantly opposed to the new format for the Davis Cup but that’s not the reason he’s retiring after this year’s final. “I made my decision at the start of the season,” said the 58-year-old captain, who has gained fame in France as a pop singer. “I have to go to another life where there’s less stress. I’m going to go back to my music. But though I’m ready to walk away now, I didn’t expect to have so much fun and excitement coming back to a job after a 20-year break.”

Croatia has won a single Davis Cup – in 2005 when Ivan Ljubicic was brilliant and was part of 11 of his team’s 12 match wins. But there was disappointment in 2016 playing at home in Zagreb in the final. Croatia led 2-1 but Cilic lost a two sets lead to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina – 6-7(4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 – in the fourth match and Ivo Karlovic was bested by Federico Delbonis in three sets in the decisive fifth match.

Canada played a part in the evolution of this year’s final after losing 3-1 to Croatia in Osijec in the first round of World Group action last February. If Milos Raonic had been fit and able to play, the result could have been different because Cilic was only three days back from losing the Australian Open final and was vulnerable with jetlag. But he wound up only having to play one match – combining with Ivan Dodig to overcome a two sets and 4-1 deficit in the third to beat Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil in five sets in the doubles.

The doubles this weekend could be pivotal with the experienced French pairing of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, runners-up to Mike Bryan and Jack Sock at the ATP Finals in London on Sunday, facing the potent Croat duo of current world No. 3 Mate Pavic and No. 35 Dodig, now 33 but still a solid player and competitor.

That will be the last time doubles is a stand-alone event on the second day of a tie.

There will certainly be a lot of nostalgia wrapped around this final Davis Cup final – a last chance to revel in the old ways before the new incarnation makes its debut in 12 months in Madrid.

NOTE: There is no television in Canada on Sportsnet, TSN or RDS of the Davis Cup Final but live streaming is available (for a fee) at DavisCup.com.

 ANDREESCU’S FINE FINISH

Bianca Andreescu struggled at times in the summer and fall with a back problem but ended 2018 on a roll – winning 18 of 21 matches and two titles.

On Sunday the 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., capped the impressive run with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over No. 721 Maria Camila Osorio Serrano of Colombia, 16, in the final of the $25,000 ITF event in Norman, Oklahoma.

Over the past five weeks Andreescu won a $25,000 ITF event in Florence, S.C., was a semi-finalist at both the Banque Nationale Challenger in Saguenay and the Tevlin Challenger in Toronto, reached the third round at the Lawrence, Kansas, ITF event and then won in Oklahoma.

As low as No. 243 on October 22, her strong finish pushed her year-end ranking up to about No. 156. Considering all the injury adversity she faced this year, that’s not a bad progression from No. 175 at the end of 2017. It should serve as a good springboard for 2019.

MULTI-FACETED FELIX

Felix Auger-Aliassime turned 18 on August 8th and had a good season on the ATP tour. He won his first tour match defeating Vasek Pospisil in the opening round at Indian Wells in March, defended his Lyon Challenger title in June, reached the second round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto with a win over No. 18-ranked Lucas Pouille in August, made the quarterfinals of an ATP 250 in Chengdu (China) in September and won his fourth career Challenger title in Tashkent in October.

His ranking improved from No. 162 to No. 108 over the course of the year.

He now has a greater profile and showcased some other talents besides tennis in this recent photo shoot.

FAVOURITE VLOGS – SUMMER OF ’18

The Dog & Fox, the best known pub in Wimbledon Village, is situated at the junction of Church Road and Wimbledon High Street. The establishment has been visited by many a tennis player and fan over the years and is a popular spot during the two weeks of The Championships.

With the World Cup of soccer still going on at the time, we visited the Dog & Fox on the middle Sunday this year’s Wimbledon – including having a sip of Pimms – to check out the clientele, which included ‘Matt from Denver,’ a good friend of the vlog.