Sweden's hopes on knife-edge

Forget and Raoux put French in command as Edberg struggles to recover his fitness
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The Independent Online
Sweden will have to fly in the face of historic precedent here if they are to win the Davis Cup after defeat in the doubles yesterday compounded the problems caused by Stefan Edberg's injury in the opening singles on Friday. On the four occasions out of nine that they have lost in the final they have also lost the doubles, and with France now leading 2-1 going into today's reverse singles, the Swedes' prospects of giving Edberg a glorious send-off before he retires are beginning to look bleak.

Much depended on whether Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti could pick up where Thomas Enqvist had left off in his singles on Friday evening when his win over Arnaud Boetsch brought the scores back to 1-1 and helped partially to ease the pain of what had happened to Edberg. But in a match in which the fluctuating form of both pairings contributed to a much headier atmosphere than had been generated on the first day, Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux held their nerve the better to win 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Whether Edberg will be able to play his reverse singles against Boetsch - it is scheduled to be the last match - remains in doubt. The twisted ankle he suffered in losing in straight sets to Cedric Pioline was still causing sufficient discomfort yesterday morning for him to go to hospital for X-rays. And although they detected no fracture, there is ligament damage and under any other circumstances he surely would not even countenance playing. Last night he was due to test the ankle on court, with a final decision on his appearance being delayed until this morning.

If Edberg cannot play, and it is hard to see how he can if he is anything less than 100 per cent fit, his place in the singles would almost certainly be taken by Bjorkman. Outsiders cannot be drafted in, which means that whichever of Bjorkman or Kulti the Swedes went for, they would have a doubles specialist contesting what would be the crunch singles.

Before that can happen, Enqvist needs to beat Pioline, which on current form he ought to. In spite of the pressure he was under, the Swedish No 1 has still managed to produce the best tennis of the weekend so far, while Pioline was less than convincing against an opponent who was in no position to put up a fight but was still allowed to.

All the psychological advantage lies with France now, however, and for that they have Forget and Raoux to thank for a performance that, for the most part, kept the red, white and blue pom-poms bobbing. Unlike on Friday, the Swedes remembered to wave their flags, and the converted Saab factory on the docks in which the final is being played - all metal stands and scaffolding - echoed in a way that was true to the Davis Cup tradition of high drama, passionately followed. A single break when Bjorkman was serving at 1-2 was enough to secure the French the first set. But in a match of errors, nerves and missed opportunities all round, they collapsed in the second, losing the last 14 points on the trot. But it all went wrong again for the Swedes, and in particular Kulti, whose succession of netted volleys helped return the initiative to the French, and they never let it go.

Although the Swedes were the more experienced as a pair, the wisdom of Forget's years carried greater significance. He lost his serve only once, and the bespectacled, crop-haired Raoux grew in stature beside him while Kulti and Bjorkman could never get any consistency going. They went 5- 0 down in the third set, winning only six points in the process, and Forget made sure that the possibility of recovery when Raoux was broken at 5- 1 was short-lived.

The fourth set turned on the fifth game when the brittle Bjorkman lost his serve by netting a backhand volley, and virtually all hope went in the game that followed when, at 40-30 with Forget serving, a return by Kulti was called out but looked on the line. Carl Axel Hageskog, the mild- mannered Swedish captain, was on his feet imploring the British umpire, Mike Morrisey, for an overrule, but he would not oblige. It was not supposed to end like this, Stefan.