LA ROCHE SUR YON, FRANCE: Any team that comes through a tricky first round tie by Saturday night can be allowed its optimism about the rest of the year, but there was something of a statement made by the French in the way they beat Australia so emphatically this weekend. For Australia too, the future looks bright – just a little further into the future than it might be for France.
France has plenty of strength in depth, headed by two Top 10 players, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The back-up includes three other players ranked in the Top 40: Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils and Julien Benneteau. And yet France’s captain Arnaud Clement sent out a strong signal in his choice of doubles team.
He originally nominated Monfils and Benneteau. No-one took that too seriously, with most people expecting Tsonga to come in to partner Benneteau, the member of the squad with most doubles experience. But an hour before Saturday’s match, Clement announced that Tsonga would partner Gasquet. And the choice paid off as the French team sealed the tie by inflicting a first Davis Cup by BNP Paribas defeat on the Aussie pair of Lleyton Hewitt and Chris Guccione.
The last time France relied on just two players to win a tie was back in 1992 in Bayonne, when the 1991 title-winning pair of Guy Forget and Henri Leconte swept the British aside 5-0. The message sent out by Clement was a strong one: no more favours, no more friends. Clement said it himself: "Nothing is definite, anything can change, at any time." The French captain showed a ruthless streak and decided that the strongest players will play, whatever anyone else may feel.
Next stop for ‘Les Bleus’ is a home quarterfinal in Nancy (eastern France) against Germany. The two nations have played nine times and France holds a 7-2 lead. In fact the last time Germany beat France was in 1938 during the era of the great Gottfried von Cramm when the French team was struggling in the post-Musketeers era. Today’s German team is feeling good after its win over Spain, but with the depth and determination of the French squad, it will be very tough for Germany to break the streak.
For Australia, the immediate future is a play-off tie in September. But the bright future is the ‘next few years’, as Rafter put it. "We’ve got young kids coming through and they’ve a big future," he said. "We are going to be one of the greatest teams in the world. I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be exciting."
The former world No. 1 clearly believes in the capacity of the youngsters he took to France: Thanasi Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios and Jordan Thompson. As of now, however, Australia’s future still depends heavily on Hewitt and his willingness to commit to the team, something Rafter is well aware of. "Davis Cup is a big part of his life and I definitely hope he’s available in September," Rafter said, "because he is a big part of this team and we really need him."
The moral of this tie: watch out for France this year, and for Australia in two or three years maybe.
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