There are times when there is no substitute for experience and Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clément used all their years of know-how to put France in pole position to win the Davis Cup final in Belgrade yesterday.
The French pair fought back from two sets down to beat Serbia's Nenad Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki 4-6 6-7 6-4 7-5 6-4 after more than four and a half hours of tension-filled drama. With a 2-1 lead, France need to win just one of today's reverse singles to claim the trophy for the 10th time, a record bettered only by the United States and Australia.
Llodra, 30, and Clément, 32 are a highly experienced pair who used to be regular partners on the tour. Zimonjic, 34, is world No 3 in doubles and won the title at the recent ATP World Tour Finals in London, and it was his 24-year-old partner who finally cracked under the weight of home expectations in the Belgrade Arena.
Troicki played with great assurance in the first two sets, but his nerve appeared to desert him while Llodra and Clément kept theirs.
Should Serbia lose in their first appearance in the final their captain, Bogdan Obradovic, will reflect long and hard on his decision not to risk replacing Troicki with Novak Djokovic, the world No 3 and his team's talisman, in the doubles.
Djokovic had a comparatively easy victory over Gilles Simon in his first singles match. In this afternoon's first reverse singles rubber he faces Gaël Monfils, and he has beaten the world No 12 in all five of their previous meetings.
The nominated players for the fifth rubber are Janko Tipsarevic and Simon, though the captains can change their line-up. Guy Forget in particular will surely be tempted to bring in Llodra, who has enjoyed one of the best years of his career.
It now seems unlikely that Serbia might go with Troicki ahead of Tipsarevic, who was swept aside in straight sets by Monfils on Friday. An uncomplicated player whose game is based on a heavy serve and big ground strokes, Troicki began confidently enough only for the occasion apparently to get the better of him.
The atmosphere inside the Belgrade Arena was electric and there were occasions when both pairs had cause for complaint over the behaviour of unruly spectators in the 16,200 crowd, with nearly 2,000 French fans.
If Troicki stumbled towards the end, it was Clément who took time to find his feet at the start. He was the only player to drop serve in the first set, which Zimonjic clinched with three successive service winners.
Zimonjic, who will partner Llodra on the tour next year, saved a set point at 4-5 in the second set with another big serve. The Serbs went on to break Clément again in the following game. Troicki, unsettled by a shout from among the French supporters, dropped serve at 6-5, but the home pair recovered their composure to win the tie-break 7-3.
The match turned in the first game of the third set as Troicki was broken again. With Clément finding his form and Llodra serving and volleying well, the French took the set with ease. The fourth was closer but at 5-5 Troicki was broken once again, Clément sealing the game with a superb lob and then serving out to level the match.
At the start of the decider it was Zimonjic who dropped serve, for the only time. The Serbs had two points to break back when Clément served at 4-3, but Troicki wasted a glorious chance when he put a forehand in the net and the French pair held on. Llodra, who held his serve all afternoon, ended it with a sweet forehand volleyon the second match point. This afternoon should be some finale.