Yannick Noah trying to bring Davis Cup back to France
France last won the tennis team title in 2001
But it hasn’t all been smooth since his return
France plays Belgium, which is seeking a first title
Yannick Noah’s latest tenure as France’s Davis Cup captain hasn’t been as smooth as some of the music he produces. But if France beats neighbor Belgium in the final this weekend to end a drought dating to 2001, no one will be able to argue with his results.
Noah was at the helm in 1991 when France won a first Davis Cup title in 59 years – famously getting the best out of the talented, yet seemingly crocked and out-of-sorts Henri Leconte against Pete Sampras’ US – and was also on the bench when France captured a maiden Fed Cup title in 1997.
Those accomplishments cemented his spot as a hero in France, his profile first skyrocketing when he won the French Open – with net-rushing flair to boot – in 1983. Despite a golden generation of players in the past decade, France still awaits a men’s successor.
And away from the court, Noah is indeed a veritable pop star, having released about a dozen albums and once, according to the New York Times, playing in front of 80,000 fans at the national stadium the Stade de France.
But if he has legions of fans for his grooves, his popularity within France’s Davis Cup squad is another matter.
There was for example visible tension between Noah and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – long considered the French No. 1 of the last 10 years – in September’s semifinal win over Serbia. The pair barely interacted during changeovers.
Noah’s first move in his third stint as Davis Cup captain last year was to pick Guadeloupe as the site of a first-round tie against Canada and that drew the ire of Gael Monfils, who was hoping for less travel time.
Monfils eventually played but is ruled out of the series against Belgium in Lille due to injury, a blow since tennis’ ultimate showman was France’s lone positive in a disastrous loss to Switzerland three years ago in the final in the same city.
That result marked the beginning of the end for Noah’s predecessor Arnaud Clement, the latter officially dismissed a year later after France lost to Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Clement sued France’s tennis federation for $1.8 million early last year before the parties settled.
Noah isn’t sure if he will be around in 2018, no matter what happens in Lille.
There is “no certainty about anything,” he told reporters this week.
France’s path to this year’s final might lead one to believe destiny is on the side of the 57-year-old and Les Bleus, however.
In victories over Japan, Great Britain and Serbia, France didn’t have to confront grand slam winners or finalists Kei Nishikori, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
But Belgium’s star man David Goffin – barring a last-minute snafu – will be taking to the hard court at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, which housed a record tennis crowd of 27,448 on the final day of the 2014 tie and is expected to boast similar figures this weekend.
Fatigue is certainly a consideration for world No. 7 Goffin since he played five matches en route to reaching the final at the World Tour Finals last weekend but the 26-year-old is bound to be supremely confident too after defeating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal indoors in London.
Goffin’s late season surge began when he won both his Davis Cup matches in September’s semifinals against Australia.
Goffin meets friend and 18th-ranked Lucas Pouille in Friday’s opening singles – the 23-year-old Frenchman surprisingly leads their head-to-heads 3-0, having gone 4-0 in their tiebreaks – followed by No. 15 Tsonga’s tussle with Steve Darcis, whose ranking of 76th belies his performances in the Davis Cup.
“Before the World Tour Finals, I thought Goffin was the best player in the Davis Cup final. Now it’s just a little more clear,” Belgium’s 1997 French Open semifinalist Filip Dewulf told CNN. “What has changed is the view from the French media, entourage, public on Goffin.
“David was always so discrete that the French, being the French, still thought in the back of their mind that Goffin was in the top 10 because of his consistency and the luck that Djokovic, Murray, and others were injured. Tsonga and Pouille would probably beat him. Now they’re a lot less sure, if not scared.
“A player who beats Nadal and Federer in one week is the real deal and that kicks in a few days before things get going.”
Jack Sock’s tennis sock challenge
A nation known more for its female tennis players given the careers of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, Belgium has never won the Davis Cup but playing in the 2015 final against Great Britain with the same crop of players will help this time around, added Dewulf.
“They had the same emotions only two years ago and should be able to use that feeling in their favor,” said Dewulf.
“To play before 27,000 people will probably be different but the fact that they play an away tie relieves the pressure a bit. They are not supposed to win and it’s always easier to be in the underdog position.”
Both captains made changes to their original pairings for Saturday’s doubles. Noah drafted in Richard Gasquet – who struggled badly in the 2014 final – to play alongside Pierre Hugues Herbert, while Johan van Herck picked Joris de Loore over Arthur de Greef to play with Ruben Bemelmans.
De Loore was always the first choice ahead of De Greef, the lone issue being a knee injury.
If the tie goes to a decider, look out for Darcis. The man nicknamed the “Shark” holds a 22-9 record in the Davis Cup and is a perfect 5-0 in ‘live’ fifth matches after beating Jordan Thompson in the semifinals.
So will Noah’s magic touch disappear?
“I’m convinced that the French will feel the pressure,” said Dewulf. “The players are seen as the golden generation but have, in the eyes of the media, not lived up to the expectations from the public and press. They will be reminded of that a number of times.
“I don’t feel like there’s really a good connection between players and French journalists while everyone on the Belgian side is pulling for the Belgian team. And in the eyes of the general public this is a golden opportunity against a small country like Belgium.
“They are just not allowed to lose, and that’s never an easy position to be in.”