On Friday in Belgrade, the French and Serbian teams will play one of the most important events of their careers as they begin play in the 2010 Davis Cup final. Here is our preview:
The captain's choices
The French are ready for the fight. The strength of this French team is its homogeneity, which allows captain Guy Forget to have many options with which to tinker. If Gaël Monfils is a lock to play singles -- both because of his great run this season in Davis Cup and of his great end of season when he won in Bercy after wins over Andy Murray and Roger Federer -- then picking the second French singles player is an enormous decision.
Richard Gasquet is way too weak mentally in order to reassure his captain. Sure, he's able to raise his level in an impressive way, but his lack of results at the end of season could be viewed as a not-so-hidden message towards Forget that says something like, "please don't pick me, I don't think I can do that anymore." He's in the final years of his career, hasn't made the most of missed opportunities and has had some previous controversies, and none of these things spoke in his favor.
Arnaud Clément is the guy always up for a challenge so this final can't scare him that much. The pressure is there and he has the desire to do well too, but this can sometimes get the best of him. The issue for him is that he's slipped in the rankings and this shows that his game has declined in the past two years. If we remember the miracles achieved by Henri Leconte in 1991, when he was ranked outside the top 100, then Arnaud Clément could have reasonably been a single player in this tie. But he won't be and got passed by the other French players who are playing better.
Gilles Simon got the initial nod over Michael Llodra and will play Novak Djokovic in the second singles match. Who has the advantage? In order to get a better view of this question, let's take a look at the Serbian situation and the emotional side of this confrontation.
Huge pressure on the shoulders of Djokovic
A Davis Cup final is a unique chance in any player's career. Representing his country isn't a trivial thing. There's this big will to win, but there's also a feeling that you have the duty to succeed. It's like playing golf in a Ryder Cup or representing your country in the Olympics. Without a doubt, the mood in Belgrade with the audience will be intense, more like a football arena than a tennis court. Everything is set for letting emotions play a big part in the final decision.
Fitness will, of course, be important. Some players have to play at least two matches, some of which may go five sets. But stress will add a lot to this fatigue. Djokovic, because of all of this, seems to be the biggest issue for the French team. Though he struggles with ailments during matches, the Serbian is a prime example of how to prepare physically for tennis such as this. He has a perfect body for this sport: tall, slender, athletic and flexible. He's moving amazingly well, is explosive and can regenerate very fast.But then there's the pressure. It's going to be an outstanding weight on his shoulders playing in front of the home crowd, especially with one as emotionally charged as we'll see in Belegrade. When there's such a player in a team, it's common to see everybody relying on him. Few would like to be in his shoes right now, because he has no room to the slightest mistake. He knows that if he's doing his job correctly, there will be only one more point to win to get the trophy. But he also knows that even if he wins his two matches, people won't consider it special. He's supposed to win. It's a tough spot to be in. The expectations are so great. Win, it's routine. Lose, it's all your fault.
When you know what this final means for Novak, you can easily guess his expectations, the pressure he puts on himself and the one imposed by a country that plays the first Davis Cup final in its history. Throw in the fact that 17 years ago, tennis was the furthest things from the minds of a war-torn Serbia and you can begin to understand what this mean. If Novak can't get a grip on all of this, he could have a tough time.
And let's not forget that his season has been quite long and tiring. It will help him regarding his routine and confidence, but his energy level can't be at its best right now. Having to play back-to-back singles and maybe even a doubles match could be way too much for him in case of long matches.
Concerning the two other Serbian players, Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic, even if they're truly great players, we can wonder about their ability to deal with this kind of pressure. Tipsarevic doesn't have too much at the moment and has rarely been able to kill a match against a top player. Troicki, even though he's improved a lot, has the same issues.
Gilles Simon will face Djokovic in the second singles match, after Tipsarevic plays Monfils. Simon has had less-than-great results recently but, in the past, he has beaten Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic. He won't doubt himself. His game style can also make Djokovic get tired early with a lot of long rallies. That's why he was picked.
For the Sunday games, Djokovic will have to face Monfils. Because of Nole's unbelievable fitness, France will want to fatigue him as much as it can on Friday. If that happens, the Serb could sink. Llodra could also come in play on Sunday, depending on how he'd feel after the doubles.
The keys to the final
The doubles will be a huge point to get under the French team's belt, but it won't be an easy task seeing as how Nenad Zimonjic has just won the ATP World Tour Finals in doubles. But the Llodra/Arnuad Clément duet has always been very efficient and owns some great results. The French doubles team will be short favorites because Zimonjic will have to play with a non-specialist in Troicki who will lack the automatic doubles instincts he may need.
Dealing with emotions will be the other big turning point of this tie. Forget has a lot of experience after having won this event both as a player and as a captain. Gaël's recklessness could also be an asset, same goes for Gille's fighting spirit and Mika's game being able to cause stress for the Serbians. Djokovic's capacity of playing his best tennis and sticking to his world No. 3 banner, as all his country is expecting him to do, will be without a doubt the reason Serbia will succeed or fail.
As a Frenchman, I can say we're all behind France right now. We've been waiting for this tie for a long time. It's game time.
Here we go.