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11 August 2011

Top 5: Debuts to forget



  • Chris Archer

Photo: Paul ZimmerNicolas Escude and Paul-Henri Mathieu (FRA)

The players in this countdown are from different eras, represent different countries and have experienced varying degrees of success in the competition, but they all share one thing in common… they made a Davis Cup debut they would like to forget!

1. Paul-Henri Mathieu (FRA)

When France hosted Russia in the 2002 Final, in Paris, captain Guy Forget had a wealth of talent to pick from. Sebastien Grosjean was the team’s No. 1 and debutant Paul-Henri Mathieu was selected as the second singles player, ahead of the experienced Nicolas Escude who won the deciding fifth rubber in the previous year’s Final against Australia.

Mathieu couldn’t have started his Davis Cup career with a much more difficult assignment, as he opened the tie against Marat Safin, a Grand Slam champion. He initially matched the Russian and split the opening sets, but Safin quickly regained his composure to hand the visitors the first point with a 64 36 61 64 win.

The next time Mathieu stepped into the fray, for the vital fifth rubber, the tie was level at 2-2 and the pressure-cooker atmosphere inside the Bercy stadium was ready to explode. His scheduled opponent was Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a former world No. 1 and winner of two Grand Slam titles, but the wily Russian captain, Shamil Tarpischev, threw a curveball and picked Mikhail Youzhny instead.

Mathieu made a dream start and raced into a two sets lead, as the home fans started to believe that a successful defence of the Davis Cup trophy was just around the corner. Youzhny clearly hadn’t read the French script, however, and embarked on what must be up there with the greatest comebacks in the competition’s history, given the timing of it.

Youzhny roared back to triumph 36 26 63 75 64, prompting Safin to heap praise on his teammate. “He showed that he's a real man, he's a Russian man, he knows how to fight, he knows how to come out of such a difficult situation,” said Safin, as the Russians began celebrating the fact that their long wait for Davis Cup glory was over.

2. Pete Sampras (USA)

Pete Sampras is one of the game’s greatest ever players, amassing 64 tournament victories during an illustrious 15-year career. He also went on to lift the Davis Cup trophy on two occasions, although his maiden appearance for USA didn’t exactly go according to plan.

‘Pistol Pete’ was picked for the first time in 1991. The occasion was the Final and the opponent was France, in Lyon, and USA went into the clash as favourites, with the odds shortening further when Andre Agassi gave the visitors the early lead with victory over Guy Forget.

Sampras was next up against the charismatic Henri Leconte, who, despite being in the twilight of his career, made sure experience reigned over youth, winning 64 75 64. The same French duo teamed up to win the doubles, leaving Sampras in a must-win situation against Forget in the fourth rubber.

In what turned out to be a classic Davis Cup tussle, Sampras slipped to another defeat to compound his disappointing debut. The pair split the opening two sets before Forget raised his game to come out on top 76(6) 36 63 64, ending a 59-year drought for France without a Davis Cup title.

3. John Newcombe (AUS)

The pressure was firmly on the shoulders of John Newcombe when he walked onto court for the first time in Davis Cup. Australia, the four-time defending champions, were hosting old foe USA in the 1963 Final at Adelaide’s famous Memorial Drive venue.

With Newcombe lining up alongside Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser, the Aussies were hotly tipped for a fifth straight title, but the American duo of Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley had other ideas. After three hard days of competition, which started on Boxing Day, USA escaped with a narrow 3-2 victory.

In the opening rubber, Newcombe began poorly against Ralston and couldn’t recover from going two sets down, slipping to a 64 61 36 46 75 defeat. The 19 year-old, who went on to win seven Grand Slams and four Davis Cups later in his career, then sat on the sidelines as the tie ebbed and flowed and headed towards a deciding fifth rubber.

Newcombe was called back into action with the nations locked at 2-2, and this time he got off to a better start as he took the first set against McKinley. However, he couldn’t sustain it and, in the days before tiebreaks had been introduced, he slumped to a 1012 62 97 62 loss.

4. Mats Wilander (SWE)

Mats Wilander was dealt a ‘welcome to Davis Cup’ blow by Australia when he made his Swedish debut in 1981. At the tender age of 16, the future Grand Slam and Davis Cup champion found himself in the singles line-up to face the reliable Aussie duo of Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee.

His first rubber was against McNamara, who swept aside his young opponent with minimal fuss, winning 64 62 61 to put the visitors 2-0 ahead on day one of their World Group quarterfinal clash in Bastad.

After the Swedes kept their hopes alive with victory in the doubles, Wilander found himself back on court against McNamee. This time he began much more brightly and raced into an early lead, but he couldn’t keep it up and the Australian turned it around in five sets 16 26 64 60 64.

5. Marat Safin (RUS)

Marat Safin went on to enjoy happier times in Davis Cup, twice leading Russia to glory, but his first appearance couldn’t have been a much tougher task. Playing alongside Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 18 year-old travelled to Atlanta for a World Group first round tie against USA.

Safin began with a straight sets defeat at the hands of Andre Agassi 63 63 63 and then teamed up with Kafelnikov in the doubles, losing 76(3) 61 26 61 to Todd Martin and Richey Reneberg. Kafelnikov, meanwhile, was having more success on the singles court and won both his matches to leave the score level at 2-2.

That meant it was all to play for in the fifth rubber with Safin facing Jim Courier, the ideal man for such occasions. Not for the first time in his career, the gritty American grinded out a five sets win 06 64 46 61 64 to leave the young Russian licking his wounds.


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