Tennis: Jittery Pioline brings equality to French reply

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The Independent Online
THE OUTCOME of the centenary Davis Cup final is balanced on nerve ends today, but we cannot be sure on whose. The doubles teams of France and Australia are about to go into action on the indoor clay court here with the score at 1-1 after yesterday's opening singles matches, which were filled with excitement and errors, although neither set of supporters are likely to quibble about the lack of quality with so much at stake.

Cedric Pioline, the French No 1, ensured that his team mates Olivier Delaitre and Fabrice Santoro would be in a position to push the cause forward, rather than having to save it, by defeating Lleyton Hewitt, aged 18 and stubborn with it, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5.

Earlier, Mark Philippoussis, the Australian No 1, dealt severely with Sebastien Grosjean, defeating the No 2 Frenchman 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. Grosjean, like Hewitt, was unable to deliver a big enough punch to seriously damage his opponent. Hewitt, however, did have the determination to unnerve Pioline for much of the three hours and 39 minutes they were on court.

The latest episode of the perils of Pioline began when the Frenchman, having recovered a break in the opening set, double-faulted to lose serve at 4-4. Fortunately for Pioline, Hewitt was unable to hold when serving for the set at 5-4. In the tie-break, Pioline led 5-1, only to stumble to 6-7 after failing to convert three set points.

Hewitt, presented with another unexpected opportunity to take the set, double-faulted, and a relieved Pioline went on to win the shoot-out, 9- 7, after 82 minutes.

Pioline was broken when serving for the second set at 5-4, and again lost a 5-1 lead in the tie-break, pulling through, 8-6, on his third set point.

All went well for Pioline in the third set, until he led 5-1 and was broken twice serving for the match, having had a match point on Hewitt's serve at 5-2. Pioline then saved four break points at 5-5, before converting his second match point, at 6-5, with a forehand down the line. There were a total of 103 unforced errors - 59 of them from Pioline.

Hewitt was defiant in defeat: "Even when I was 5-1 down in the third set, I felt if I could get one set I could win the match."

Grosjean was pummelled by the towering Philippoussis for one hour and 57 minutes. There were murmurings afterwards that Forget ought to have selected the in-form Nicolas Escude to share the responsibility in the singles with Pioline. But Forget, having stood by Grosjean, the man in possession, was too busy preparing Pioline for his contest against Hewitt to indulge in hindsight.

Two double faults in the third game were indicative of Grosjean's nervous start, Philippoussis capitalising with a backhand pass down the line and then luring Grosjean into a forehand error, one of many the Frenchman was to commit.

Grosjean was relieved when Philippoussis also played a tentative service game, double-faulting twice, the second time for break point. Grosjean converted, making lively strides to flick a winning forehand half-volley across the court. Two forehand errors then cost Grosjean the set, Philippoussis breaking for 5-4 and serving out after 40 minutes for the loss of only one more point.

So far, both players had taken their opportunities - three break points, three breaks of serve - and when Philippoussis hit the far line with a forehand at 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, Grosjean obliged with another forehand error.

Once Philippoussis had saved two break points in the second game, Grosjean struggled to survive, realising - point by point - that his prospects of hurting the Australian were limited, and that he would have to rely on the Melbourne "Scud" self-destructing. Apart from the odd careless shot, Philippoussis remained on course, breaking a second time for 5-2, Grosjean netting another forehand on the third break point.

"I knew what I had to do," Philippoussis said. "I played some solid tennis." Grosjean knew what he had to do, too, but he was not capable of executing his shots with the ferocity of his opponent, in addition to which his forehand continued to misfire. It put him in trouble again at 2-2, 15- 30, and undid him completely on the third break point of that game.

After that, Philippoussis was able simply to bide his time. "I felt very calm out there," he said, "surprisingly calm, to be quite honest."

Philippoussis was one of the few calm people in the arena, such was the passion generated by a 10,000 crowd for this first ever Davis Cup final between two nations who have contributed so much to the tradition of the event.

Today the tension will be transferred to the doubles pairs as Delaitre and Santoro attempt to undermine the pair who have become an Australian institution: Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

DAVIS CUP FINAL (Nice): M Philippoussis (Aus) bt S Grosjean (Fr) 6-4 6-2 6-4; C Pioline (Fr) bt L Hewitt (Aus) 7-6 7-6 7-5. Score tied at 1- 1. Today's doubles (1.30 start): F Santoro and O Delaitrte (Fr) v M Woodforde and T Woodbridge (Aus). Tomorrow's singles (12.30 start): C Pioline (Fr) v M Philippoussis (Aus); S Grosjean (Fr) v L Hewitt (Aus).