David Goffin was the MVP of this past weekend’s Davis Cup final in Lille, France. But Davis Cup is a team sport so it’s no real surprise that Goffin and his Belgian mates came out on the short end of a 3-2 score against the French.
France’s far superior depth was the difference as the matches went entirely as expected – Goffin won his two singles, French players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille beat up on (already beat-up/injured?) Belgian No. 2 Steve Darcis and the doubles was won by the solid French pairing of Richard Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. In hindsight, the Belgians lost any chance at an overall victory when Ruben Bemelmens (alongside Joris De Loore) failed to get in any first serves and was broken when he served for the third set at 5-4 of what was eventually a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 victory for Gasquet and Herbert.
It was France’s 10th Davis Cup in the 105-year history of the event – its first since 2001.
In terms of pure tennis Goffin elevated the competition with his stunning singles performances – beating No. 18-ranked Pouille 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 on the opening day and No. 15 Tsonga in the fourth match 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-2 on Sunday. The 74-minute first set of Goffin–Tsonga featured some of the highest-level tennis seen anywhere in 2017. The rallies were scintillating with Goffin finally putting an exclamation point on the tiebreak and the set with a beauty, outright backhand service return winner. After that, as Tsonga said later, Goffin was “impeccable.”
The soon to be 27-year-old (December 7th) has emerged as a truly top-class player this fall – winning tournaments in Shenzhen (China) and Tokyo and then beating both world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Roger Federer on his way to the final of the ATP Finals in London two weeks ago.
It was obvious in London that Nadal was not at his best and that Federer may have let down his guard having beaten Goffin in four previous meetings and winning the first set 6-2 before being overtaken 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. But Goffin’s play in Lille, just five days after losing the ATP Final 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to Grigor Dimitrov in London, was remarkable. He showed no signs of a letdown or fatigue, suggesting he has the mental and physical strength to be a force in 2018.
At No. 7 in the 2017 year-end rankings, he could easily have been No. 5 – ahead of current No. 5 Dominic Thiem and No. 6 Marin Cilic – had he not seriously injured his right ankle tripping on a tarpaulin at the back of the court in the third round of Roland Garros. That was on June 2nd and he missed the entire grass-court season and really didn’t get back to playing his best until August or maybe even September.
At just 150 pounds (68 kilograms), he’s one of the best pound-for-pound players in tennis history. Past greats Jimmy Connors (5-foot-10, 155 pounds) and Rod Laver (5-foot-8, 150 pounds) both had shorter more compact builds than the rail-thin 5-foot-11 Goffin.
And Goffin doesn’t play an essentially modern era counter-attacking game like a David Ferrer. His big-hitting tennis, and amazing speed around the court, makes him more of a mini-Federer – a cat-quick, whirling dervish of all-court shot-making.
On the French side of the weekend at Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, the win reinforces the long-known fact that the host country has a sound base of players – six in the top-50, just one behind Spain’s seven.
But there has not been a Grand Slam singles title winner from France since Davis Cup captain Yannick Noah in 1983 at Roland Garros.
Noah, now 57, returned as captain last year and there have been mixed feelings about him among his players and observers of the game in France. Tsonga and Gilles Simon informed him on different occasions that they didn’t want any advice from him on the change-overs during matches.
After successfully captaining teams to the Davis Cup in 1991 and 1996, Noah had been out of tennis for many years and not involved in the sport in any active or high-profile manner. He was more caught up in his career as a pop singer.
But as that career tailed off, many viewed his return as captain in 2016, backed mainly by the old guard at the French Tennis Federation, as an opportunistic attempt to boost his image with hoped-for Davis Cup success.
In a sense he got lucky as France last year defeated Canada without Milos Raonic and Daniel Nestor and Czech Republic without Tomas Berdych before losing to Croatia in the World Group semifinals.
This year the French beat Japan without Kei Nishikoriin Tokyo, Britain without Andy Murray in Rouen and Serbia without Novak Djokovic in the semifinals in Lille to reach the championship round.
Noah is a larger than life character who has been voted the most popular personality in his country on 11 separate occasions. But he’s 25 years older than the two oldest players on the French team – 32-year-olds Tsonga and Simon.
At times during the ties it was obvious that the players weren’t interested in listening to him – although he was far from the wooden figurehead that Swedish great Bjorn Borg was as captain of Team Europe during Laver Cup in September. But there remained a certain detachment among his players.
According to L’Equipe, it’s been a difficult few years for Noah as his mother Marie-Claire, with whom he started the charity Les Enfants de la Terre, died in 2012. Then his father Zacharie, who unforgettably tumbled out of the stands to embrace him on the court right after he won Roland Garros, passed away in January. Last year his best friend Pascal Albuixech, from his days at the tennis academy in Nice where he first went upon arriving in France as a 12-year-old tennis prospect from Cameroon, also died.
Speaking after the victory on Sunday, Noah said about Pouille’s decisive win over Darcis, “this is when his career is really going to start.” He then added, “mine is probably over.”
Noah has been one of the most charismatic, beloved and respected players ever in tennis. It’s nice that he was able to have one last hurrah in the sport that has given him so much. But he has at times stolen the limelight and upstaged his players. Especially on a high note, it’s probably time for him to allow a new generation to take charge of the French team.
Every year a new class of young players takes three days of ATP University training to learn about life as a professional on tour.
Two weekends ago in London, 25 of them attended including five Canadians – Félix Auger-Aliassime, Steven Diez, Filip Peliwo, Brayden Schnur and Denis Shapovalov.
Here’s a description from the ATP website about what went on: “The weekend opened up with former World No. 2 and 1998 Nitto ATP Finals Champion Alex Corretja speaking to the group and offering advice based on his own journey. The players also listened and participated in presentations covering: Overview of the ATP, ATP Tournaments, Media Training, Nutrition, Player Relations, Social Media, Medical Services, ATP Communications, ATP Marketing, Rules and Officiating, Savings and Investments, Security, Communicated Threats, Anti-Corruption and Anti-Doping.”
There was an ATP IQ test at the end of all the sessions and the highest mark went to…Filip Peliwo.
Bbc just called to say I was PROBABLY going to be named sports personality of the year but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot. I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway!
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) November 24, 2017
This was Andy Murray’s tweet last Friday – a sarcastic take-off of President Donald Trump’s tweet about not being interested in being Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year.’
There are lots of reasons for liking the droll Scotsman– and this is just another one.
Feature photo courtesy: @DavisCup