France enhance cup's stature

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Just before play began on the last day of the Davis Cup final in Malmo on Sunday, Brian Tobin, the benign Australian who is president of the International Tennis Federation, issued a statement headed "The Davis Cup - A Justification".

The 65-year-old Tobin was feeling aggrieved. "Malcontents", as he described them, were trying to undermine the annual, ITF-run men's team championship by suggesting that it was cluttering up the schedule of ATP tour events and Grand Slams. Among those Tobin had in mind were Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who have rather patronisingly tended to pick and choose when to play Davis Cup; a few days previously Sampras had upset the ITF by suggesting that it might be an idea to make it a biennial or even quadrennial affair.

Tobin duly mounted a stout defence of the competition. With 127 countries taking part in 1997, it was helping to take tennis to all corners of the globe; it was important for the development of young players, from which the ATP Tour benefited; and the tradition of an event that can trace its origins back to 1900 ought to be respected.

What Tobin omitted to refer to was the unique quality of Davis Cup tennis - the sort of tension, and scope for heroism, that as any Ryder Cup golfer will tell you only comes when individuals are doing it for the team. And never was that truer than in the incredible drama that unfolded later when France and Sweden produced unarguably the greatest final in the competition's long and illustrious history.

There could have been no more ringing justification for the Davis Cup than a match which ended with Arnaud Boetsch, having saved three match points, beating Nicklas Kulti 10-8 in the fifth set of the deciding singles to bring France a victory like no other. Never before in 84 finals had the outcome rested on the final set of the final match, and for Agassi and Sampras to regard as unworthy of their full support a competition as pure, meaningful and gripping as this can only diminish them.

Yannick Noah, the winning captain, got it absolutely right afterwards when an elated French team came in to meet the press with the clock ticking into the early hours of Monday morning. "What I love about the Davis Cup is it's not about contracts, it's not about schedules, it's not about business," he said. "It's about the team. It's a different thing. It takes a certain character to win matches in Grand Slams, but in the Davis Cup you have to give up a lot for others. You have to sacrifice a lot of things. If people choose not to play, it's too bad. We'll just keep winning. It doesn't take anything away from us."

The feeling Noah has for the Davis Cup and the need for collective purpose was obvious from the way he led the team to an emotional victory over the United States in Lyon in 1991, and what he achieved here was, if anything, of even greater magnitude. "The joy we feel is very special because we love competing as a group," he said. Noah must now be ripe for a sainthood.

It was "like a dream" for the 27-year-old Boetsch, who had come on court after Thomas Enqvist's wonderful recovery from two sets down to beat Cedric Pioline had returned the psychological advantage to the Swedes. "Five years ago I was in the team but I didn't play," Boetsch said. "I was supporting my friends and trying to do my best for them, and this time I was playing. It was a big honour for me, and to win this match in this way was unbelievable."

One's heart bled for Kulti, the 25-year-old doubles player who had been drafted in after Stefan Edberg failed to recover from his twisted ankle. He was much less experienced in singles than his opponent, but he played the match of his life, and when, in the final set, Boetsch stood at 6- 7 and 0-40 he was on the brink of writing his name into Swedish legend. He will be remembered anyway, not least because he was brave enough to try for outright winners on all three match points, and it was perhaps fitting that in the match that marked an ultimately frustrating farewell to the game for Edberg, the Swedes found in both Enqvist and Kulti new men to acclaim.