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31 January 2014

France on brink of fifth straight quarterfinal


By Eli Weinstein

Photo: Antoine CouvercelleJo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)

LA ROCHE SUR YON, FRANCE: Logic suggested the French should take a 2-0 lead into the second day of their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas tie against Australia, and despite a third set fightback by Lleyton Hewitt, logic triumphed at the ‘Vendespace’ arena, as the ninth and tenth best players in the world were too good for the best Australia could offer.

First up, world No 9 Richard Gasquet put France in the lead by defeating the 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios 76(3) 62 62 in a minute over two hours. Despite a solid display of talent and power, the teenager proved he was more green than gold. And then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked 10, dominated the 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt for two sets, before seeing off a typical Hewitt fightback to win 63 62 76(2).

Kyrgios was competitive at least for the first set against Gasquet, and when he led the tiebreak 3-1 the Aussies were set for a dream start. But then Kyrgios showed his first signs of fatigue, and lost the next six points to concede the set, and effectively the match.

‘Winning the first set was very important, especially against a young guy like him,’ Gasquet said after the match. ‘He is very talented and serves very well, but after the tie-breaker I felt a lot more confident.’  Up a set, the Frenchman’s level of confidence rose as did his backhand winners count. Gasquet also served up a storm, winning six consecutive games to love on his serve.

The 100 ‘Fanatics’ who had made the long trip from Down Under to cheer on the Aussies did what they could to lift their player’s spirit. They went through their entire repertoire, from ‘Another one bites the dust’ to ‘That’s the way’, but aside from creating some atmosphere, their sing-along did nothing to help Kyrgios and certainly couldn’t prevent Gasquet from giving France a commanding two-set lead. And the third set was almost a carbon copy of the second, with a double break for France and an avalanche of unforced errors from the young Aussie.

‘I’m disappointed because I gave it my all out there,’ Kyrgios said. ‘All respect to him, he played an unbelievable match. There were definitely chances in the first set, but after that, he gained so much confidence, allowing him to play world class tennis and that’s how he gets to where he is.’

That piled the pressure onto the shoulders of the Australian veteran Lleyton Hewitt, who had never taken a set in his previous three matches against Tsonga. Make that four matches after Tsonga’s win, a victory that means the Frenchman maintains his unbeaten run in Davis Cup on a Friday – he’s nine out of nine on the opening day!

With a break point in the opening game of the match, there was hope on the Aussie bench that ‘Rusty’ could create some of his old magic. But when he failed to convert, all hope of magic ended there, and from then on it was the Tsonga show. The Frenchman simply overpowered Hewitt, making the contest look like a heavyweight taking on a featherweight.

Serves, forehands, backhands, volleys – the domination was total. And it lasted two sets, during which the former number 1 in the world was unable to compete with a Tsonga in the zone. ‘He played really well,’ acknowledged Hewitt. ‘He served big. In the third set I tried to hang in there, do different things and mix it up, but all credit to him, he played amazing especially during the second set when it seemed as though he couldn’t miss.’

Only in the third set could Hewitt find any parity with Tsonga. Serving first, he forced Tsonga to play catch-up for 12 games. He even had two break points early in the set, but Tsonga defended them easily, and the set went to the tie-break. At which point, Tsonga switched his level from the second set back on, and took the breaker 7-2.

‘Today I really felt good on the court,’ Tsonga said, ‘and on days like this it’s hard for anyone to play me. In the third set Lleyton proved why he is a great fighter, but I managed to lift my level in the tie-break.’

So the French end day one in a very strong position, but Australia’s best hope of picking up a point is in the doubles. Momentum favours the French, but if the Australians can take it, then the final day could become interesting. ‘It’s not over yet, we’re still alive,’ said Australia’s captain Patrick Rafter. They are, but for how much longer, only the doubles will tell.

Follow this tie as it happens: Live Scores or Watch Live

Captain Arnaud Clement (FRA) - 31/01/2014

Nick Kyrgios (AUS) - 31/01/2014

Richard Gasquet (FRA) - 31/01/2014

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    • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)Pat Rafter (AUS)
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    • Richard Gasquet (FRA)Nick Kyrgios (AUS)
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