France will win the Davis Cup for the 10th time today, overtaking Britain in third place behind the United States (with 31 wins) and Australia (27), unless Russia's Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov can dredge reserves of inspiration to compensate for fatigue after losing the doubles in five sets yesterday. The Russians are 2-1 down with two singles to play.
The killer blow in yesterday's contest and perhaps the final was the Russians' inability to consolidate a lead of two sets to one and 2-0 in the fourth set against Fabrice Santoro and Nicolas Escudé. The Frenchmen broke back to 2-2, and then cracked Safin's serve for the first time in the match to take a decisive 4-2 lead. When Safin was broken a second time at the start of the fifth set, the spirit began to drain from the Russians and their animated chief supporter, Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin led the applause and raised his right arm in a clench-fisted salute after the Russian team had taken the initiative. The former president's wife, Naina, waved a small Russian flag, which drooped as their optimism turned to disappointment.
Santoro and Escudé, having watched Safin defeat the debutant Paul-Henri Mathieu, and then Sebastien Grosjean level the tie by overwhelming Kafelnikov on Friday, can now sit back and savour the concluding singles matches after prevailing yesterday, 6-3 3-6 5-7 6-3 6-4.
Russia's two-man force will try to mock the odds against them as they drag their weary limbs into a third day of campaigning. Safin must overcome Grosjean in a duel of the No 1s in order to give Kafelnikov the chance to win the tie in a fifth rubber against Mathieu. As things stand, the 28-year-old Kafelnikov's dream of retiring in possession of the trophy seems remote.
Kafelnikov, who was on the losing side in Russia's two previous finals, against Sweden in 1994 and the US in 1995, needed to perform better than he did against Grosjean to take the pressure off pressure he had built by saying for months that he wanted to end his career with a Davis triumph.
While yesterday's doubles was an anti-climax for the Russians, it was a marvellous match, full of twists of fortune, dazzling rallies and agonising errors of judgement. Having broken Kafelnikov's serve in the fourth game, the Russian double-faulting, the Frenchmen took the opening set without extending themselves. Yeltsin took off his jacket, as if he wanted to join in.
Kafelnikov's serve was threatened again in the third game of the second set, but he saved a break point with a potent second serve. Santoro lost his serve in the fourth game, Kafelnikov winning a spectacular exchange. Yeltsin leaned forward in anticipation.
Although Kafelnikov lost his serve for 1-3 in the third set, Santoro was broken twice. Escudé, who wore a support for his lower back, had treatment before the start of the fourth set. He lost his serve in the opening game, but made amends by breaking Safin for 4-2 to put the home supporters in the mood for a party.