Rafter life-raft as Hewitt sinks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The 1-1 scoreline after the first day of the Davis Cup final between France and Australia was widely anticipated, but the dramatic events that led to it were not: a five-set upset for Lleyton Hewitt and a stunning return to form for his injury-plagued compatriot, Patrick Rafter.

It was the mirror image of the result privately predicted by both teams, which had Hewitt – the apparently unstoppable world No 1 – sailing effortlessly through his opening singles rubber against Nicolas Escude and Rafter struggling at the hands of Sebastien Grosjean.

With the two nations neck and neck, the outcome of today's doubles match will be crucial, but it will be tomorrow's reverse singles that will determine the 2001 Davis Cup champions.

Hewitt was surly and uncommunicative after his 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 loss to Escude, so it was not clear what factors – ill health, complacency, the pressure of public expectation – contributed to end the US Open champion's recent extraordinary run.

His defeat was a major psychological blow to the Australians, who beat France in the final in Nice in 1999 and succumbed to Spain in last year's final. But within two hours, Rafter – widely touted as the team's weakest link – had swept aside Grosjean 6-3, 7-6, 7-5, after producing a classic display of serve-and-volley tennis on the portable grass court laid over the Rebound Ace surface of the Rod Laver Arena.

Rafter, who missed the 1999 showdown because of injury and yearns for a Davis Cup win before he retires indefinitely at the end of this year, said: "To go out there 1-0 down and put back in what the team really needs is really, really rewarding for me."

Hewitt, who won the season-ending Masters Cup in Sydney, blamed his first Davis Cup loss this year on his failure to exploit break point opportunities; he converted only three of 18. "I felt like I had a lot of chances and just couldn't take them," he said.

It was difficult to believe his claim that he was otherwise pleased with the way he played. He was on sparkling form in the first set, winning 12 points in a row, but Escude – urged on by a group of French fans with bongo drums – found his rhythm in the second and began to dominate, serve-and-volleying as the Australian vacillated on the baseline.

Hewitt took the third set after one break of serve, then the Frenchman equalised and broke serve twice in the fifth. The match recalled Escude's five-set victory over Hewitt in the fourth round of Wimbledon this year. Escude said: "I used the same tactics that I used at Wimbledon, to come to the net at every opportunity and put pressure on him." While Escude has a perfect 7-0 Davis Cup record, Hewitt is unhappy about the fact that all three of his live Davis Cup defeats have been in finals.

If the recent flurry of concern about Rafter's swollen right arm was partly aimed at taking the pressure off him, the tactic appears to have worked.

The Queenslander powered through the first set yesterday and recovered from a break down in the second to force a tie-break, which he won from being three set points in arrears. In the third set, he unexpectedly broke serve at 6-5 to clinch the match.

Grosjean, the Masters Cup runner-up, said he had not seen Rafter play such good tennis for a long time. Rafter embraced the Australian captain, John Fitzgerald, then punched the air and high-fived every member of his team. "I am looking forward to Sunday," he said, grinning broadly.