There was a moment before a ball was struck in the Germany-France World Group quarterfinal that imperceptively summed up the task facing the Germans. They had come into this tie with such high hopes, yet as the teams stood on the court 10 minutes before the opening singles and the two national anthems were played, the force that is currently with French tennis in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas suddenly became apparent.
There is nothing tangible one can put one’s finger on. The French team always link arms as the Marseillaise is played, they’re always cheered on by several hundred blue-clad fans, and the back-up staff of the French Tennis Federation leave observers in no doubt that France playing in Davis Cup is an undertaking of high-level organisation, bordering on military precisions.
Yet there was something about the gusto with which the French fans sang their anthem that sounded a warning to the hosts. OK, many of the home fans were not yet in the stadium, as they lived locally and could afford to be casual about their arrival time. But it still sent out the message that, unless Germany got just about everything right, it would fail to crack one of the hardest nuts in the Davis Cup world.
The Germans’ hopes were not without foundation. This has been a good year for German tennis, largely because of the success of a photogenic and charismatic trio of women players (Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki), but the men have performed well too.
Florian Mayer has broken the world’s top 20 at the age of 27, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Philipp Petzschner played out an all-German final in the grasscourt tournament in Halle last month, and both Petzschner and Christopher Kas have both been in form in doubles. They also brought into the tie a record against France that was so abysmal that it had to end sometime, and Patrik Kuhnen’s team has a strong esprit de corps.
The problem for the hosts was that France has an equally good team spirit, and has four players in the top 20. Gilles Simon, ranked 18, travelled with the team but couldn’t get a place as the doubles specialist Michael Llodra edged him out. It meant the Germans could not afford to waste any opportunities if they were to trouble their neighbours from across the Rhine.
What would have happened had Mayer not suffered cramp in both legs when closing in on victory against Richard Gasquet in the opening rubber is now for the ‘what if?’ merchants. If he had served out the victory at 5-4 in the third set, the overall outcome may still have been the same, but at least the Germans would have had the monkey off their back – they would have won a live rubber against the French. That could have freed up Kohlschreiber to play his best against Gael Monfils, and the weekend would have developed a buzz about it that it frankly lacked.
That is the nature of having a hopeful home team take on a highly fancied away team. If the challenge catches fire, the spectacle generates a momentum of its own, and tennis becomes pure sporting theatre. If it doesn’t catch fire, it can all fall rather flat, and that’s what happened.
Petzschner restored some German pride with a 63 64 win against a very hungover Michael Llodra in the first reverse singles, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made the final score 4-1 with a 76(3) 76(5) win over Kohlschreiber. But the French have now lost 18 live Davis Cup rubbers in succession against France, a run going back to Gottfried von Cramm’s win over Paul Remy back in 1953. No wonder Kuhnen says ‘The French like playing against Germany.’
The time difference between Stuttgart and Texas being eight hours, the French were not fully able to celebrate, despite a good turn-out among a fun-loving crowd on the final day of the tie – French and German fans sat together and several French fans donned German T-shirts, making for a wonderful tableau.
Desperate for a home semifinal, the French will go to bed on Sunday night hoping for two American singles wins in Austin, so they can stage a France-USA semifinal at Roland Garros the week after the US Open. A Spanish victory would mean the French travelling south for their third away tie of the year.
This tie won’t stay long in the memory, but the French team will. Once again, Guy Forget has a unit that’s bigger than the sum of its parts – and this time, the parts are pretty big.