Austria - France 2-3 (Report)

The tie in the hangar is now part of Davis Cup history. When France’s Jeremy Chardy beat Martin Fischer of Austria in Sunday night’s decisive fifth rubber, it wrote another chapter in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas’s growing chronicle of imaginative venues. And while it wasn’t the result that Austria wanted, its bold gamble of staging the tie in Hangar 3 at Vienna Airport was rewarded with a tie that had lots of drama and went down to the wire.

In retrospect, Austria lost this contest in the first rubber. Jurgen Melzer knew that he needed to play well on all three days, and perhaps that pressure got to him a little. He played 12 sets over the weekend, the last of them by far the most impressive. After soaking up nearly four hours of pressure from the rock solid Gilles Simon, Melzer finally hit peak form in a scintillating final set of the fourth rubber, to level the tie at 2-2.

“It’s a big win,” he said immediately afterwards, “but it would have been sweeter if we’d been 2-1 up and not 2-1 down.” Although the tie wasn’t over, he knew how expensive his defeat to Chardy in the opening rubber was likely to prove.

Whether a tie is ever held in an aircraft hangar again is still open to question. In many ways it was a great success, with the venue being the talking point up to the first point, but then blending into the background the way any venue should as the tennis took over the attention. But there were a couple of technical issues that will have to be addressed before the ITF gives the green light for similar ventures in the future.

One of them concerned access to the building – by definition, hangars are ‘airside’, which means they are in the high security area, so people can only get to the hangar after security clearance. The system by which a steady stream of shuttle buses ferried nearly 6,000 spectators into and out of the stadium – each one piloted by a security car with red flashing light – worked very well, but there is inevitably a limit to how many people can be ‘bussed in’, and this may impact on a hangar’s viability for future ties.

And there were also limits to the strength of communications signals in order for them not to interfere with aircraft communications, and that caused issues for the organisers. These are not necessarily obstacles to a hangar being used in the future, but they are matters that have to be addressed.

One aspect about the venue that was never fully publicised was the role played by the former Formula 1 world champion and now aviation entrepreneur Niki Lauda. The 62-year-old Austrian, who still wears a cap to hide the scars from his horrific crash in Germany in 1976, had negotiated for his airline, Niki, to take over Hangar 3 from Austrian Airlines.

Lauda was approached by Ronnie Leitgeb, whose official job is Melzer’s manager but is in reality the leading tennis impresario in Austria, to see if he would delay bringing in his planes by one week in order to allow the hangar to be used for the tie. Lauda not only agreed, but attended the draw and all three days of the action.

Although it would have made a great story for the Austrians to have won, in reality the stronger team prevailed. The French were missing their top three players, yet still manage to parade the 27th and 30th ranked players in the world, and never needed to call on the 27th (Llodra) in singles.

By contrast, Austria are a team in transition – Melzer may be at his peak by being in the Top 10 in both singles and doubles, but the younger generation of Fischer and the injured Andreas Haider-Maurer are not yet solid enough to make Austria a strong World Group nation. Twenty years ago, Austria came within a set of reaching the Davis Cup final, but then the team leader, Thomas Muster, was backed up by two Top 50 players in Alex Antonitsch and the late Horst Skoff, a strength the Austrians just don’t have at present.

Ultimately, though, it was another triumph for Guy Forget. France’s captain is an unusual figure, in that he talks during matchds more than arguably any captain in Davis Cup history, and that isn’t everyone’s style. But he has once again dug the maximum out of his team. After 40 minutes of Sunday’s decisive match, Chardy was wracked by nerves and trailed Fischer 26 12, already a break down in the second set.

“My legs are like two pieces of wood,” Chardy told Forget, who just told him to breathe, to take his time, and gradually talked his man into the match. Once he was in, Chardy’s strength was always going to overwhelm the neat but lightweight game of Fischer, and France duly won in four sets.

With Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet all expected to be fit for July’s World Group quarterfinal, the French will fancy their chances, even though they again have to travel, this time to a venue of Germany’s choosing.