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French talent blooms in Lille

Christopher Clarey, New York Times News Service, Dec 4 2017, 17:21 IST
France won their 10th Davis Cup title with a win over Belgium in the final. Reuters

France won their 10th Davis Cup title with a win over Belgium in the final. Reuters

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were already on vacation, but a throwback men's tennis season ended in throwback fashion last Sunday with the captain Yannick Noah leading another French Davis Cup celebration at home.

Noah, 57, wears spectacles and has gray hair now. The dreadlocks are gone along with some of his relentlessly positive energy. His albums do not sell like they used to in France. Not all of his players even want his input during matches. But enough of Noah's power of persuasion clearly remains intact along with his good fortune.

Consider this: France won its first Davis Cup in 16 years without having to defeat a singles player ranked in the top 40 all season. That is a reflection of this injury-riddled phase in the men's game and also the latest testimony to the Davis Cup's diminished status. For the game's biggest stars, winning it just once is now typically enough in light of all the other less draining and more lucrative demands on their time.

As it is so often in this era, it was easy to feel differently about the Davis Cup's significance if you were there in person. The Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille was packed with 27,000 fans for three straight days - just as it was in 2014 when Federer, Stan Wawrinka and the Swiss spoiled the French fete in the final.

Neither Federer nor Wawrinka has bothered to play in a non-relegation match since then. But the French have kept chasing "La Coupe Davis," which has been a shiny object of desire in their country since the 1920s when the Four Musketeers - Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon - pried it away from Bill Tilden and the United States.

In 1991, Noah, who was winding down his playing career, helped put an end to a 59-year drought for France as captain of the team featuring Guy Forget and Henri Leconte that upset Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the Americans in Lyon.

It was a memorable victory when Davis Cup was still a priority for the game's biggest talents. It was an even more indelible party as Noah, a pop singer as well as a French Open champion, led a conga-line dance to "Saga Africa," a song from his recent album.

Since then, France had won the Cup twice more away from home, most recently in 2001 in Australia. This year's celebration also had an anti-podean air as Noah and his players and staff performed their bicep-flexing version of the haka, a Maori war dance, in the locker room shortly after Lucas Pouille overwhelmed Steve Darcis 6-3, 6-1, 6-0 in the fifth and final match of a 3-2 victory over Belgium.

"There is nothing more beautiful," said Pouille, wiping away the tears after the victory scrum on court had broken up. Pouille does not have much frame of reference. This generation of French players has long been considered one of the country's most talented, but until now the veterans Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gaël Monfils and Gilles Simon had yet to win a major singles title or the Davis Cup.

Although Tsonga and Gasquet won points in the final, it took a younger, less experienced Frenchman to finish off the quest. Noah could have picked Gasquet for the decisive singles match, but he stuck by Pouille, who had been picked apart in straight sets by David Goffin on day one. Noah's move turned out to be the right one, and it will be intriguing to see where Pouille, just 23, and men's tennis go from here.

Next year's first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, is shaping up as a clash of generations. There is Federer, ranked No 2 at age 36 and still near his best on relatively quick surfaces like the cushioned acrylic hard courts in Melbourne. He won the title in January by defeating Nadal and coming back from 1-3 down in the fifth set. That was undoubtedly the match of the year on multiple levels.

Often paired with Federer because of their long yin-and-yang rivalry, Nadal, 31, is, in fact, part of the same tennis generation as Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Wawrinka is 32. Djokovic and Murray are 30, and all plan to return in 2018 from six-month injury breaks of their own. That sort of extended hiatus worked to relaunch Federer in 2017. It would come as no big surprise if it did the same for Djokovic or Murray. Age 30 is no barrier in tennis anymore. A record 43 players age 30 or over finished in the top 100 this year.

But the younger set has momentum.

It was not just Pouille who closed out 2017 in style. Three players in their mid-20s made big moves by season's end: Grigor Dimitrov, 26, beat Goffin, 26, to win the ATP Finals. Jack Sock, 25, won his first Masters 1000 event to qualify for the ATP Finals. All three are in the top 10 and could do major damage in 2017, as could Milos Raonic, 26, and Kei Nishikori, 27, if they, too, are able to return to health.

Then there are the power players in their early 20s: Alexander Zverev, 20, and Nick Kyrgios, 22. Zverev is already ranked No. 4, but for now he is still developing the staying power required for best-of-five-set tennis and has yet to advance past the fourth round in a major. Kyrgios, still prone to physical breakdowns and mental lapses, did not get past the second round in a major in 2017.

Still, both players clearly have the talent to keep 2018 from turning into another throwback season. Will they? Or will Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka hold off the challengers and give us more of the same? The beginning of the answer will come in Melbourne in less than two months' time.

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