NANCY, FRANCE: In normal circumstances, the absence of Richard Gasquet from France’s team to play Germany in Nancy this weekend might have been seen as a bit of a blow, particularly since the Germans are coming straight from a comprehensive defeat of Spain in the first round.
The reason why it isn’t is due not just to the much-depleted state of Carsten Arriens’ team but also the form of Julien Benneteau.
Nominally viewed as France’s No. 4 in singles these days and more often than not a doubles player when it comes to Davis Cup duty, the 32-year-old has been enjoying a stunning few weeks in the United States, where he reached the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before losing to the eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
As a consequence, Arnaud Clement, the France captain, has promoted him to the No. 2 singles spot, ahead of Gael Monfils, and he opens this quarterfinal tie at the Palais des Sports Jean Weille against Tobias Kamke.
Monfils’ indifferent form of late obviously made Clement’s selection task a lot easier than would have been the case.
Benneteau has played the new German No. 1 five times and beaten him five times, although he did have his work cut out twice last year to do so in five-set and four-set matches at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, respectively.
Clement must be a little surprised to find that his No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be facing Peter Gojowczyk in the second of Friday’s singles rubbers rather than Jan-Lennard Struff.
Although both the Germans are ranked around the 100 mark, the lanky Struff clearly enjoys the French air. At the Marseilles tournament in February, the 23-year-old beat both Benneteau and Michael Llodra before losing to Tsonga in two close sets in the semifinals.
Struff has come straight from a challenger event in Mexico and Arriens has decided that he is not in the best shape to face the French, although it would be a mistake to rule him out of this tie completely. It would be Struff’s first appearance in a Davis Cup tie, just as it is Gojowczyk’s.
Although Monfils and Llodra will be teaming up in the doubles for the first time in Davis Cup - against Andre Begemann and Kamke - the French are still odds-on favourites to wrap the tie up in two days and thereby extend their winning run against the Germans to seven matches. The last time Germany beat France was before the Second World War.
As Benneteau pointed out, with so many versatile players at their disposal France have numerous options. Despite the mediocre form of Tsonga and Monfils – which the former at least is desperate to remedy, starting this weekend – France are looking perhaps even stronger than usual.
Their crushing 5-0 defeat of Australia in January was evidence of a sense of “greater freedom” which Benneteau believes Clement has instilled in the players as compared to how it was under Clement's predecessor Guy Forget.
They seem quietly confident of ending a 13-year wait for that 10th Davis Cup success: an away tie against Japan or more probably a home tie against Czech Republic awaits them in the semifinals, assuming they get past a German team overly dependent on rookies at this critical stage of the competition.
The French, however, will be keeping a careful eye on Switzerland, as no doubt the Swiss will be on them. Thursday’s draw took place in the Nancy opera house at the beautiful Place Stanislas, which, needless to say, has not been named after Switzerland’s new Australian Open champion, although Stanislas Wawrinka may appreciate the irony.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Julien Benneteau (FRA) v Tobias Kamke (GER)
R2: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v Peter Gojowczyk (GER)
R3: Gael Monfils/Michael Llodra (FRA) v Andre Begemann/Tobias Kamke (GER)
R4: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v Tobias Kamke (GER)
R5: Julien Benneteau (FRA) v Peter Gojowczyk (GER)
Captain Carsten Arriens (GER) - 03/04/2014
Andre Begemann (GER) - 03/04/2014
Julien Benneteau (FRA) - 03/04/2014
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) - 03/04/2014
Captain Arnaud Clement (FRA) - 03/04/2014
Tobias Kamke (GER) - 03/04/2014
Jan-Lennard Struff (GER) - 03/04/2014
Gael Monfils/Michael Llodra (FRA) - 03/04/2014