France draw on glorious memories

Experience and home advantage may tilt Davis Cup final in favour of Forget's team over confident Australians

On the eve of the centenary Davis Cup final, which starts here today, Australia's captain, John Newcombe, the member of a winning team four times, was asked about the strength of the French opposition. "Memories," he said.

On the eve of the centenary Davis Cup final, which starts here today, Australia's captain, John Newcombe, the member of a winning team four times, was asked about the strength of the French opposition. "Memories," he said.

"I've got nobody out on that court who has won a Davis Cup final."

Although Australia have won the trophy 26 times, second only to the United States (31), their last victory was in 1986, when Pat Cash overcame Sweden almost single-handedly on the Melbourne grass at Kooyong. The French have succeeded eight times, but had lived on tales of the Mousquetaires of the 1920s and 1930s until Guy Forget and Henri Leconte defeated the Americans in Lyon in 1991, and Forget and Cedric Pioline were part of a phenomenal triumph in Sweden in 1996.

Whenever Americans are up against it in any form of conflict, the phrase "Remember the Alamo" tends to be called to mind. In the case of French tennis, the rallying cry is " Souviens - toi de Malmoe". Arnaud Boetsch won the last point of the last game of the last match to defeat Sweden's Nicklas Kulti, 10-8.

Forget, who partnered Guillaume Raoux to win the doubles in Malmo, is now the French captain. "It's the same in every sport, not only in tennis," he said. "You have to try your best. If Cedric had won against [Thomas] Enqvist on the Sunday when he was up in the fifth set, probably no one would have remembered that tie being as exceptional as it was, because Arnaud saved match points and had problems finishing the match. But overall, it's the same story again and again: just give it your best till the last point."

Pioline did not look too pleased to be reminded of Malmo. His defeat there by Enqvist, 9-7 in the fifth set of the fourth rubber, is remembered better than his straight sets win against Stefan Edberg in the opening match. Mind you, Pioline was the personification of impatience yesterday, studying his fingernails after the opening sentence of the seemingly interminable speeches that preceded yesterday's draw, an excruciating five-set presentation without tie-breaks.

This afternoon, Pioline's big-match experience (though not always successful, as evidenced when he was the runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and the US Open), will be important to the French when the talking stops and the action starts on an indoor clay court at the Acropolis Expositions complex.

The consensus is that Australia's No 1, Mark Philippoussis, will probably live up to his Greek roots and overshadow Sebastien Grosjean in the opening match, which would leave Pioline, the French No 1, to restore home confidence by resisting the feisty teenager Lleyton Hewitt.

Which brings us to the crux of the final, tomorrow's doubles between Olivier Delaitre and Fabrice Santoro and Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. The "Woodies" have won every doubles prize with the exception of two - the French Open and the Davis Cup (they were on the losing side against Germany in Düsseldorf in 1993).

Since the World Group began in 1981, the Davis Cup champions have always won the doubles rubber in the final. And since the introduction of the Final Round in 1972, only Australia have won the final after losing in the doubles.

Woodbridge and Woodforde have won 13 of their 15 Davis Cup doubles matches. Delaitre and Santoro have won the two they have played so far. They have also defeated the "Woodies" twice in ATP Tour matches this year. "All that's really done is really piss the 'Woodies' off," Newcombe countered.

"I'd like to erase the memory of losing in '93," Woodforde said. "To do that would be exceptionally nice after a disappointing year by our standards." Woodbridge added: "I believe that hard work pays off. Mark and I have worked extremely hard the past three months to get our form and consistency back to a high level. If you can keep knocking on the door, the door will open."

As far as Forget is concerned, Woodbridge and Woodforde can keep knocking on the door as long as they like. "I think Fabrice and Olivier are our best chance of getting one point for the team," he said. "I'm really confident about their ability to beat the 'Woodies'. Winning five Wimbledons is not going to help you to win a particular match on clay. It's a totally different game."

Home advantage can work for or against a team. Newcombe has faith that his players will not wilt no matter how much noise the French supporters make.

"When you're playing away from home, there's going to be a time when you're going to need all the courage that you've got," he said. "If you can draw on your team-mates and feel their spirit coming out towards you, it can help you get through some very difficult occasions.

"The last two days, I've had a very calm feeling, because I feel we can't do anything more. We've prepared for the fight as best we can; now it's just a matter of coming to the action. Sometimes you can feel a spirit inside a team, and then you start to believe that it's your destiny to win. I honestly believe that it's our destiny to win. That's the feeling inside my gut."

Much of the promotion of the final has centred on the fact that both nations will endeavour to enhance their reputations as world champions, Australia at cricket and rugby union (the latter at the expense of the French), France at football, not to mention petanque.

My feeling is that France will edge it, but trusts that the Mayor of Nice was right when he made one of the few succinct statements heard yesterday: "The winner will be tennis."


TODAY'S OPENING SINGLES (12.30 start) Sebastien Grosjean v Mark Philippoussis Cedric Pioline v Lleyton Hewitt

TOMORROW'S DOUBLES (13.30 start) Fabrice Santoro & Olivier Delaître v Mark Woodforde & Todd Woodbridge

SUNDAY'S REVERSE SINGLES (12.30 start) Pioline v Philippoussis Grosjean v Hewitt

all times GMT