French Toast

Cooking at home, France unexpectedly burned the U.S. to win the Davis Cup for the first time since 1932
December 09, 1991

Frankly, the food was a problem. So were all those dancing and singing Frenchmen, besotted with their dreams and their C‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•tes du Rh‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•ne, bordelaise, Gauloise smoke and unbridled emotion. The U.S. squad was overwhelmed by the sheer Gaulness of it all. As a result, in an arena in which 8,000 sounded like 800,000, France won the Davis Cup by pulling off the biggest final-round upset in the history of the competition.

After Henri Leconte and Guy Forget combined to defeat the U.S. three matches to one, they sobbed in exultation on the court at the Palais des Sports Gerland in Lyons on Sunday afternoon. Not since 1932, when Renè Lacoste and the rest of the famed Four Musketeers won the last of six consecutive Davis Cups for France, had the country claimed what its people affectionately call the saladier, or salad bowl. But this year was not at all comparable. First of all, this group was captained by Yannick Noah, the onetime Cameroonian who sports dreadlocks and a dangly earring and has recorded a hit reggae single in France called Saga Africa. That was what the French team members sang, rather than La Marseillaise, as they congaed around the arena after Forget had beaten Pete Sampras 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to clinch the Cup tie.

With the final shot, a Forget forehand into the open court, Noah leaped from his courtside chair with a cry. As for Forget, a bloodless, balding lefthander who delivered 17 aces, he was driven to his knees and then onto his back by an explosion of noise that he said represented "a victory of friends, and of a whole country." Players and fans alike carried on so much that the meaningless fifth match, between Leconte and Andre Agassi, was canceled.

While Forget was the hero of the moment, Leconte, with his bright flame of a tennis game, is the one who will presumably be cast in bronze at Roland Garros. Leconte shouldn't have been on a tennis court at all after having undergone his third back operation four months ago. But Leconte, who had fallen to No. 159 in the rankings, furiously rehabilitated himself in an effort to make the team. "He was dead," said Noah. "To live again, he needed a dream. I gave him a dream."

It was this type of quixotic effort that typified the French team. By contrast, the U.S. squad was characterized by overconfidence and rubelike behavior. While the French were in Montreux, Switzerland, running through forests for the two weeks before the tie, the Americans were scattered all over the globe. While Noah had the gall to choose the injured Leconte for his spirit and experience, U.S. captain Tom Gorman selected the poised but passionless Sampras, a Davis Cup neophyte.

As Noah dined in a restaurant on Saturday night, after his team had taken a 2-1 lead with a victory in that afternoon's doubles, the other patrons stood on tables to applaud him and sing to him. "I don't think the Americans realized how much the Davis Cup meant to the French team and the French people," said Forget later. "In America they have 10 different things that are more important than the Davis Cup."

The lone U.S. point was delivered by Agassi, who defeated Forget 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 on Friday. Thereafter, Agassi spent his time complaining about the food in Lyons, which only happens to be the gastronomic capital of the world. After sampling a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Paul Bocuse, France's most celebrated chef, Agassi chose to dine at McDonald's and on handfuls of candy. "It's the only thing fit to eat here," he said.

Agassi's victory was followed by Sampras's Davis Cup debut, which became a U.S. nightmare thanks to Leconte, who prevailed 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. Sampras was also undone by the spectators, who between points beat on railings, stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers and chanted in full throat, "Allez, allez, allez!"

"He can't go five, he can't go five," Agassi kept yelling to Sampras from the bench, convinced that Leconte would fold either physically or mentally in a fifth set. But Leconte was untouchable A former Top 10 player, he has combined flashes of brilliance with many a disappointing performance. His dazzling but erratic play earned him the nicknames Riton, or "little Henri," from the French public and l'Idiot from his former coach, Ion Tiriac. In the 1988 French Open finals against Mats Wilander, Leconte was nearly jeered off the court after collapsing in straight sets. Against Sampras, though, he played a gorgeous match that he called "the most complete of my life."

Sampras, who's No. 6 in the world, had been the hottest player in men's tennis for several months. Since the end of July he had put together a 36-6 match record and won three tournaments, including the ATP Tour World Championship in Frankfurt over fellow American Jim Courier and an event in this same arena in Lyons. But after Leconte had finished with him, Sampras looked like a confident young boxer who had just gotten punched for the first time—and discovered how much it could hurt. "I never had that feeling on the court," he said. "I'm just glad it's over."

Sampras did not anticipate that he would be in an even more difficult situation two days later. Everyone expected the veteran U.S. doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso to still the French hysteria with a victory over Forget and Leconte on Saturday. Instead, Leconte was as good as he had been the day before, and Forget raised his game. The result: a 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory.

It was a testament to how difficult the surroundings were that even Flach and Seguso, who were 10-1 in Davis Cup competition and are the world's second-ranked team, were taken aback. "The emotion was so high, it was difficult to overcome," said Flach. "We did all we possibly could."

The loss meant that Sampras would have to defeat Forget to force Leconte back onto the court against Agassi for a decisive match. Early in the year, when he built a 25-5 match record, Forget had been as hot as Sampras was later. In two of the six tournaments he won in 1991—Cincinnati and the Paris Indoors—Forget, who's ranked No. 7, beat Sampras in the finals. Nick Bollettieri, Agassi's personal coach, slipped a note under Sampras's door on Saturday night urging him to collect his nerve and play aggressively. "He's doing a lot of soul-searching," said Bollettieri of Sampras.

Forget, too, had to seek out his nerve. He has had a habit of playing his most timid tennis in the game's biggest events. However, the presence of Noah, who assumed the role of spiritual leader on every changeover, seemed to give Forget starch. In many ways, it was Noah's heart that beat on the court. "He gave me a taste for the risk," said Forget afterward.

Sampras double-faulted four times and was one for 12 on break-point opportunities. He was 0-5 on break points in the last game of the third set, in which Forget somehow summoned four serves of a lifetime, including a second-serve ace to save the third break point. "It was a very big, gutsy point," said Sampras.

On Saturday evening Noah had summed up the national miracle his team was trying to accomplish. It had been said that the French should be happy just to have made the finals. After all, hadn't they had a most fortunate draw, playing all four of their ties at home and never having to face a player ranked higher than No. 34, Richard Fromberg of Australia, until they encountered the Americans? But as the French surpassed each successive expectation, Noah, Leconte and Forget refused to be satisfied.

"There are too many Number 2's in France," said Noah. "We like losers too much. This is what this team is trying to change. We want to share this beautiful thing we can offer—winning."

TWO PHOTOSTAVERNIER/SIPALeconte pounded Sampras to tie the tie on Friday, then paraded with Forget on Sunday. PHOTOTAVERNIER/SIPANoah led the French contingent in a victory conga line to the beat of his hit reggae single.