TENNIS : Boetsch thrills France

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Sweden and France could claim to have produced the greatest Davis Cup final in its 96-year history here last night after two concluding singles matches of the utmost drama and monumental heroics ended with the tricolours waving and the home nation knowing that, in defeat, they had found men more than worthy of their remarkable tradition in this event.

Never before in 84 finals had the outcome rested on the fifth set of the fifth match, and when, after four hours and 46 minutes, Arnaud Boetsch finally overcame Nicklas Kulti, a late replacement for the injured Stefan Edberg, 7-6, 2-6, 4-6, 7-6, 10-8 to bring his team victory, none of the crowd could have been in any doubt that they had witnessed something extraordinary, not just in the context of tennis but in all sporting endeavour.

We had already been treated to one astonishing match, the first of the reverse singles in which Thomas Enqvist, the Swedish No 1, came from two sets down to beat Cedric Pioline 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 9-7. How could Boetsch and Kulti beat that? The exploits of all four men in 120 games spread over more than nine hours will remain etched on the memory.

France thus won the trophy for the eighth time and their second since 1991, when their defeat of the United States in Lyon set a benchmark for glorious achievement which one thought could never be beaten. Yannick Noah, the captain now, as then, was already in the pantheon of French sporting stars; the talismanic effect he has had once again will only make him shine more brightly.

Who would have thought that it would end like this for Stefan Edberg? Sweden's finest was supposed to have finished his career in the last of the reverse singles, but the twisted ankle he suffered against Pioline on the first day never looked like recovering in time, and thus the task of winning the Cup back for Sweden for what would have been the fifth time in 13 years fell to the unlikely figure of Kulti.

Nothing in the 25-year-old's modest career spent mainly as a doubles player could have prepared him for the responsibility he faced when he walked out to face Boetsch, two years his senior.

At 65 in the world singles rankings, Kulti was 32 places behind an opponent who knew all about Davis Cup pressure - he had won the deciding match against Italy in the semi-final after France had recovered from 2-0 down. Kulti and Boetsch gave it everything, the former serving and volleying overhead with tremendous conviction and making full use of his expertise at angled play, the latter going boldly - sometimes too boldly - for winners at any opportunity.

Boetsch took the first set 7-2 on a tie-break and it appeared to be going to form. But the tall Kulti, his long face a picture of concentration, took the second 6-2 and the third 6-4 before a tie-break had to decide the fourth, this time won by Boetsch after he had been presented with three set-points and lost the first two.

The final set went with serve all the way, although how Boetsch extricated himself when he trailed at 6-7 and 0-40 is just one of many almost inexplicable moments on a day that gripped from start to finish. By the end, Kulti was barely able to stand, but still he saved two match points when Boetsch served at 40-0 before a long forehand brought the Frenchman to his knees and his team-mates leaping ecstatically on to the court.

Enqvist has been a reluctant heir to Edberg, but after his defeat of Pioline, the Swedish No 1 may have no choice in the matter. Anyone who loses from two sets to love up and has served for the match might be thought to have blown it, and if it had not been for Boetsch, Pioline would no doubt be tormented by the thought of what might have been. But Enqvist flatly rejected the suggestion that his opponent had choked, and he was right.

Enqvist appeared the fitter man, and his game was certainly the more aggressive. He wore a meaner expression. And while the Frenchman generally stayed back and was conservative in his construction of rallies, Enqvist gambled on hitting much closer to the lines.

For a long time, however, Pioline's canniness looked as if it might be the crucial factor. The first set he wrapped up on the strength of a break gained in only the second game. The second set was tight. Neither man was broken, and the tie-break went Pioline's way, 10-8. Enqvist, refusing to panic, broke Pioline in the first game of the third set, which was enough to win it. He was now really rolling, and took a 4-0 lead in the fourth. The dogged Pioline came back at him to level at 4-4, but immediately was broken and Enqvist served out to love.

The start of the fifth was the start of the fourth in reverse. Pioline was up 3-0. Enqvist got a grip, but at 5-3 on Pioline's serve it was crunch time. He saw him off to 15 and never looked back. The nearest Pioline got to winning the match was two points, when Enqvist stood at 6-7 and 15-30 but a double fault cost him his serve at 7-7 and Enqvist held to 15.

DAVIS CUP Final (Malmo): Sweden v France: Swedish names first: Friday: S Edberg lost to C Pioline 6-3 6-4 6-3; T Enqvist bt A Boetsch 6-4 6-3 7-6. Saturday: Doubles: J Bjorkman and N Kulti lost to G Forget and G Raoux 6-3 1-6 6-3 6-3. Yesterday: Enqvist bt Pioline 3-6 6-7 6-4 6-4 9-7; Boetsch bt Kulti 7-6 2-6 4-6 7-6 10-8. France win 3-2.

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