France will be going for their 10th Davis Cup title this weekend when it hosts the Swiss team led by Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka for the Davis Cup final in Lille, France. But before the final kicks off on Friday, we look back at the last time France won the Davis Cup in 2001.
The beauty of Davis Cup is how it so perfectly balances the need for teamwork while setting the stage for career-defining individual heroics. When France flew down to Melbourne for the Davis Cup final in November 2001, few would have tapped No. 27 Nicolas Escude as the man of the weekend. Australia fielded then No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, Patrick Rafter, who was hobbled by a shoulder injury but had the opportunity to create a Davis Cup legend, and doubles star Todd Woodbridge. And to top it all off, they had home court advantage, which they sought to exploit by installing a portable grass court at Melbourne Park to mess with the French.
France's team was led by their top singles player, No. 6 Sebastian Grosjean, Escude and a doubles team of Fabrice Santoro and Cedric Pioline. When they arrived in Melbourne and saw the grass court -- which was gradually falling apart with each practice session -- they were stunned. "Day after day it seems it's deteriorating," said captain Guy Forget. "Big pieces go off and I don't know if that will affect the quality of play within the next few days but I'd rather concentrate on the match itself than say goodbye to the court." The grass court not only bothered the French, but it (theoretically) kept the points short for Rafter's serve-and-volley style.
But while Australia's captain John Fitzgerald was busy crafting the tie to help Rafter, he forgot about Hewitt. Hewitt would go on to win Wimbledon the following year, but at the time, his best surface was hard courts. He had just won his first Slam at the U.S. Open and claimed the No. 1 ranking for the first time after winning the ATP Finals. He was poised to get his baseline game ready for grass in Melbourne, but the last match he had played on the surface that year was in the fourth round at Wimbledon -- a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 loss to...Nicolas Escude. Oh boy.
The two played the first singles rubber on Friday and once again, Escude stunned Hewitt in a five-set thriller, winning 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Hewitt looked to be the dominant player throughout the match but went just 3 for 18 on break points, allowing Escude to hang around and earn his own chances to take control of the match. Rafter salvaged the day for the Aussies and beat Grosjean in straight sets, but Hewitt's loss threw the whole Aussie strategy into turmoil. They were counting on Hewitt to secure them two points in singles so they could roll the dice with Rafter or the doubles to steal the third point.
Rafter's shoulder could only handle one one more match and the Aussies decided to take a massive gamble. Fitzgerald subbed Hewitt and Rafter in for doubles on Saturday, knowing that win or lose, Rafter probably wouldn't be able to recover and play a singles match on Sunday. The gambit failed. Pioline and Santoro dismissed the pair 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, (5), 6-1. France was just one point away from avenging their upset loss to Australia in the 1999 Davis Cup final in Nice. Said Fitzgerald about the decision after the match: "There's a very fine line between genius and idiot, isn't there?"
Hewitt came out on Sunday and beat Grosjean in straight sets to set up a decisive fifth rubber pitting No. 64 Wayne Arthurs against the confident Escude. Maybe there's just something about Melbourne Park that brought out the best in Escude, who made the Australian Open semifinals in 1998. Or maybe it's just that unquantifiable magic that only Davis Cup can conjure. Either way, Escude continued with his weekend heroics and beat Arthurs 7-6 (3), 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-3 to win France its ninth Davis Cup trophy.
Here's how Jon Wertheim saw it back then:
Rafter could only look on dejectedly as Arthurs fought gamely but lost to a superior player. "We took a risk in doubles, and it didn't work, but it was a risk we had to take," said Rafter, explaining that after feeling soreness in his arm on Saturday morning he knew he had only one more match in him, and he agreed with Fitzgerald that Australia should go for the jugular in the doubles.
Escude is preternaturally calm during his matches, but he erupted on Sunday evening. When he alighted from his teammates' shoulders, he chased them around the grass, dousing them with champagne. "It's amazing," he said. "It's like a fairly tale." One that didn't end happily ever Rafter.
Escude had played the hero all year for France. In the quarterfinals they faced Switzerland, and Forget went with Escude to face Federer, ahead of his higher ranked players like Grosjean and Pioline. Escude had beaten Federer in Rotterdam earlier that year and Forget was banking on that confidence. It paid off. He beat Federer 6-4, 6-7(1), 6-3, 6-4 to give France a 2-0 lead. Then he saved match point against George Bastl to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-4, 8-6 in the fifth and decisive rubber.
Highlights from Escude's heroic weekend: