NANCY, FRANCE: It is the endearing charm of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas that it steadfastly refuses to be predictable. Take the quarterfinal here in Nancy for example. The difference in quality between France, a team bristling with household names against Germany, a team shorn of its three best players and packed with unknowns, was as clear as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac’s face, and yet it is Germany who lead 2-0 at the end of the first day’s play.
After the blip – or at least that is what we thought it was - suffered by France when Julian Benneteau lost in straight sets to the world No.96 Tobias Kamke in the opening rubber, it was fully expected Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would bring a dose of reality to affairs by beating the world No.119 Peter Gojowczyk.
Instead he lost 57 76(3) 36 76(8) 86 in four hours and 18 minutes of play that will live long in the memory of French tennis fans, never mind German ones – painfully long in France’s case.
“It was a tough loss,” said Tsonga, “and I hope I will not see that again. It’s 2-0 for them and we will give everything to come back in this match and try to win it.”
It has set up potentially one of the biggest upsets in Davis Cup history in many years – Arnaud Clement, the French captain, who had extensive experience in the competition as a player, admitted that he could not recall ever recovering such a predicament.
It will take a huge effort by France, the nine-time champions and one of the big favourites to win the competition this year, to extricate themselves from this one and judging by the form of its combatants here they do not appear to be up to the task.
Make no mistake, though, this was more about Germany taking the initiative than France surrendering it. Obviously, Kamke and Gojowczyk played ludicrously above themselves, but they were worthy winners. The latter had to fight off cramp from the third game onwards in the final set and in so doing won his first ever five-set match. What a time to do it.
Just to put the scale of his achievement perfectly in perspective: this was a player who had lost his opening match in his last five tournaments. But he was also a player who had taken Rafael Nadal to three sets in reaching his first Tour semifinal in Doha in January, so he was not completely without some pedigree.
“When you play for your country it’s obviously something special,” said Gojowczyk. “I was cramping. I don’t know how I managed to win the match but I’m very happy to win the point for Germany.”
From the start, he played without fear and that was probably the key in both these German victories: favouritism can be a crippling burden. Certainly Benneteau and Tsonga found it so. Tsonga, whose form this year has been indifferent to say the least, never looked comfortable, even when he won the first set which he did with just a couple of points to spare.
The ease with which he lost the second-set tiebreak was ominous. The turning point was the fourth-set tiebreak. Tsonga, uncomfortably holding the first of two match points at 6-5, played what looked like a simple volley winner at the net, but the ball floated fractionally wide of the line with Gojowczyk completely out of position.
In that moment Tsonga went from winner to loser, figuratively speaking, even though he promptly secured a second match point at 7-6 on Gojowczyk’s serve. The disappointment of that first missed opportunity was crushing.
Benneteau could hardly complain about the way his match started. When the man who at one time or another has taken the scalp of all of the world’s current top six players and who reached the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells only three weeks ago, went 4-0 up in the first set there must have been a few compassionate souls in the packed Palais Des Sports Jean Weille in Nancy who feared for the German’s honour.
And yet from that difficult position, Kamke took control of the match with steady, solid play and an unerring backhand while Benneteau’s game went from good to bad and then worse as he won 76(8) 63 62 in just two hours and 40 minutes.
Kamke, the German No.1 in the absence of Philipp Kohlschreiber, Florian Mayer and Tommy Haas, said afterwards: “[Captain] Carsten Arriens told me, ‘You are hitting the ball well and moving well, he’s just not missing’. Keep focussing and try to hit with a little more spin with your forehand to his forehand and make the rallies as long as you can, make him physically struggle a little bit because you’re fit’.
“And I said ‘I try’, and from the first moment on it worked very well and gave me a lot of confidence because I felt like I would make 80 per cent of the rallies we played.”
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Captain Carsten Arriens (GER) - 04/04/2014
Captain Arnaud Clement (FRA) - 04/04/2014
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) - 04/04/2014
Tobias Kamke (GER) - 04/04/2014
Julien Benneteau (FRA) - 04/04/2014