Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra battled back from two sets down to come through a hot blooded encounter on Saturday and put France on the brink of being crowned Davis Cup champion for the first time in nine years.
Led by the magnificent Clement, the French pair produced a highly spirited performance and held their nerve at the crucial times to record a 36 67(3) 64 75 64 victory over Nenad Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki.
The result hands France a 2-1 lead over Serbia and sets up a mouth-watering final day in Belgrade, when Novak Djokovic is scheduled to face Gael Monfils before a fifth rubber that could see both captains make changes.
Serbians take early lead
Zimonjic and Troicki started stronger as the French duo looked edgy and unsettled in the early exchanges. The inevitable break of serve arrived in the fourth game and it was enough to take the first set.
The Serbians, fired up by the passionate home support, went ahead again in the second but failed to serve out the set at 6-5, allowing Clement and Llodra to force a tiebreak.
The packed Belgrade Arena crowd, which had been surprisingly subdued during Friday’s singles rubbers, were making themselves deafeningly heard and Enric Molina, the chair umpire for the clash, had a battle on his hands to keep control.
Molina even recruited the help of the players to acquire some form of order. “Ladies and gentleman, look at your players, Nenad and Viktor are asking you to be silent," he said, before Janko Tipsarevic took the microphone to request the same thing.
The Serbian pair used the interruption to their advantage and regained their composure quickly to take a stranglehold on the tiebreak, sealing a two-set lead with a winning interception from Troicki.
French pair dig deep
Clement and Llodra needed to bounce back quickly and they did, gaining a swing in momentum with an immediate break in the opening game of the third. This was all the advantage they needed as the set proceeded to go with serve to get France off the mark.
The match-turning moments came towards the end of the fourth set when Serbia missed two break point opportunities at 4-3 that would have left them serving for victory.
The French players dug deep and three games later a winning forehand lob from Clement – unsuccessfully challenged on Hawkeye by the Serbs – clinched a decisive break for a 6-5 lead. The visitors held to go the distance.
Just as they had in third set, Llodra and Clement broke in the first game and despite the Serbian pair’s best efforts, and those of the enthusiastic home fans, they couldn’t get back on level terms.
On Clement’s serve at 4-3, the Serbians had two break points but failed to convert. The second chance ended with a weak netted forehand from Troicki when he should have done better.
There were no more scares for the French pair and Llodra confidently served out the match to leave Zimonjic and Troicki ruing their missed opportunities.
Clement brilliance makes difference
Many people predicted that Llodra would be the key player in the doubles rubber, having performed heroically in all of France’s ties en route to the Final, but it wasn’t the case.
The left-hander made a nervous start and never reached his best, while Clement was quite simply brilliant as he carried France to a famous win.
When Clement was overlooked for the French teams that reached the Finals in 2001 and 2002, even though he’d played a major role in the early rounds, he would be forgiven for thinking that his chance of lifting the trophy had passed him by.
Yet at the age of 32, the veteran Frenchman, a former Wimbledon doubles champion, rolled back the years and produced what must be one of the best performances of his career.
The tie is now perfectly poised ahead of Sunday’s reverse singles rubbers. Djokovic takes on Monfils in the opening match and, if successful, the Final will head into a deciding fifth rubber for the first time since 2006.
Tipsarevic is currently scheduled to take on Gilles Simon although both captains, Bogdan Obradovic and Guy Forget, are allowed to bring in substitutes.
After his display today it is unlikely Troicki will come in for Tipsarevic, but there is a good chance that the French captain will call on Llodra’s services to replace Simon.
Whatever the line-up, Sunday is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and dramatic days of tennis in recent years. This is Davis Cup drama at its very best!