NANCY, FRANCE: Winning three matches out of three doesn’t sound too difficult if you say it quickly. It’s been done frequently enough at the start of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas ties, but very rarely at the business end of them. France took their first step towards doing the improbable - something they haven’t done in 18 years - when they won the doubles against Germany in Nancy to halve their deficit in this quarterfinal.
After “Black Friday” their task looked hopeless as Julien Benneteau and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, two players who have spent the majority of their careers in the upper echelons of the game, lost to two little known Germans ranked around the 100 mark.
Then Saturday arrives and, in the words of Nina Simone, “it’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life”. It was far from an emphatic win by Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau, who found the rookie pairing of Tobias Kamke and Andre Begemann a handful, but their 61 76(5) 46 75 win in three hours and 26 minutes did some restoration to the battered pride of French tennis.
It was a personal success for Benneteau, who performed woefully in losing in straight sets to Kamke on Friday. Captain Arnaud Clement kept faith in him – he was never likely to go with Gael Monfils in the doubles alongside Llodra despite that being his nominated pairing – and Benneteau responded with a solid performance. The sight of Benneteau sitting on his chair afterwards with tears rolling down his cheeks told us all exactly what representing his country in Davis Cup meant to him.
Clement spoke afterwards of the importance of generosity of spirit when a player was playing Davis Cup; he was no longer playing just for himself but for his team, for his nation. The clenched fists of Benneteau before a ball had been struck indicated that he was not about to let his country down a second time. Nor did he.
“I know him very well, I know he was very disappointed about his singles match,” said Clement, “but I know also that he’s a great champion and I didn’t imagine another reaction from the one he gave today.”
Of course, there is still a mountain to climb, but suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so daunting; Llodra felt that the pressure had now shifted a little bit in Germany’s direction. Surely, Tsonga can beat the world No.96 Kamke, and Monfils, who is almost certainly being saved for the fifth and final rubber should it come to it, can, even in his present less than inspired form, beat the world No.119 Peter Gojowczyk. But then this is Davis Cup and if this tie has told us anything it is that it’s a mistake to count your chickens, or cockerels in the case of France.
Those French men and women who believe in happy endings will be reading Nancy for Nantes. It was in a World Group semifinal at the Sports Palace in the western French city in 1996 against Italy that France’s Cedric Pioline and Arnaud Boetsch both lost their opening singles rubbers. Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux then won the doubles to begin a fight back that was completed on the final day by Boetsch and Pioline.
This doubles rubber may prove to have been the most problematic of the three remaining matches and without question the French team would never have crossed the finishing line without the support of a wonderfully passionate crowd at the Palais Des Sports Jean Weille. Llodra and Benneteau had the good sense to tap into this energy, particularly in the fourth and final set. “A huge help” was how Benneteau described their contribution.
As the five break points converted out of 21 revealed, it was often a frustrating match for the French pair and when the Germans won the third set and went a break up in the fourth lesser players might have crumbled. It was then that the 6,000-strong crowd here came to the fore.
If ever a crowd carried a team to victory it was in the final game when poor Begemann must have wondered who he was serving to at times: Llodra, Benneteau or the mass ranks of Les Bleus.
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Captain Carsten Arriens (GER) - 05/04/2014
Tobias Kamke/Andre Begemann (GER) - 05/04/2014
Captain Arnaud Clement (FRA) - 05/04/2014
Julien Benneteau/Michael Llodra (FRA) - 05/04/2014