Davis Cup - Mouratoglou: What is at stake?
The big day is here. In Belgrade on Friday, those selected will play one of the most important events of their career.
The captain's choices
The French guys are up for the fight. One of the great strengths of this team is its homogeneity, meaning captain Guy Forget has many options to play with. Gaël Monfils may well be a fixture - both because of his great run in the Davis Cup and because of his fantastic end to the season, with an appearance in the final at Bercy accompanied by wins over Murray and Federer - but the selection of a second French player needs a great deal of thought.
Richard Gasquet seems way too weak mentally to reassure his captain. Sure, he’s able to raise his game at certain times but a lack of results at the end of the season was tantamount to telling Forget: "Please don’t pick me, I don’t think I can do it anymore." In any case, the last couple of years of his career - consisting of missed opportunities and no small amount of chaos- haven't exactly done him any favours.
Arnaud Clément is always up for a challenge so this final won't scare him too much. The pressure is there, but his burning desire to win can override all his other fears. The issue for him at the moment is that his ranking indicates a game that has gone down more than up over the past two years. If we remember the miracles achieved by Henri Leconte in 1991, then Clément could be a singles player in this tie.
But I think he'll be overlooked in favour of other French players who are now displaying better potential. It seems like it’s going to be a battle between Michaël Lodra and Gilles Simon. And each has his own special abilities. In order to get a better picture of this question, let’s take a look at the Serbian situation and the emotional side of this confrontation.
Huge pressure on Djokovic shoulders
A Davis Cup final presents a unique chance in any player's career. Representing his country isn’t a trivial thing. There’s a big will to win but there’s also a feeling that you have a duty to succeed. Without a doubt, the atmosphere in Belgrade will be more like a football arena than a tennis court. Everything is set for letting emotions play a big part in proceedings. Fitness will of course be also an issue, with some players having to play at least two matches in potentially five sets.
But stress will also contribute a great deal to this fatigue. Due to this, Djokovic seems to be the biggest issue for the French team. The Serbian is a leading example regarding fitness preparation. He got a perfect body for this sport: tall, slender, athletic and flexible. He moves amazingly well, is explosive and can regenerate very fast.
But the amazing pressure he has to carry on his shoulders should also be recognised. When there’s such a player in a team, it’s common to see everybody relying on him. Few would like to be in his shoes right now, because he has no right to make the slightest mistake. He knows that if he’s doing his job correctly, there will be only one more point to win to get the trophy. But he also knows that even if he wins his two matches, people will consider it normal. If he fails, he’ll be first in the firing line.
When you know what this final means for Novak, you can easily guess his expectations, the pressure he puts on himself and the one imposed by a country that will compete their first Davis Cup final. If Novak cannot get a grip on all of this, he could be the weak link in a team he's carrying. And let's not forget that his season has been long and tiring. That may help his confidence, but his energy levels can’t be at their best right now. Having to play back-to-back singles and maybe even doubles could be way too much for him, especially in the case of long matches.
Tipsarevic and Troiki: very good players with fragile nerves
As for the two other Serbian players, even if they were truly great players, we can only wonder about their ability to deal with this kind of pressure. Tipsarevic hasn't got too much confidence at the moment and has rarely been able to kill a match against a top player. Troicki, even if he has improved a lot, has the same issues. But French players should be warned: they will have to stay as close as possible to their opponents and fight until the end. This weaker side of the Serbian number two could be even more obvious under pressure.
So who will be the second singles player?
Taking all this into account, the name of the second French guy takes on a decisive meaning. Llodra’s case is very interesting. He’s in full confidence now and finally believes in his potential against top players. He won in two sets against Djokovic in Bercy. He's got an atypical game which puts a lot of pressure on his opponents who have to spend their time making passing-shots. That's a great way to make them feel insecure. It could be a huge advantage in a Davis Cup final. Guy must feel very close to him: both are lefty, with the same kind of game and abilities. His only bad point? Playing both singles and double could end up being too much for Llodra.
Gilles Simon isn’t in the same position. He hasn't enjoyed such good results recently but, in the past, he has won against Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. He won’t doubt of himself. His style, with a lot of long rallies, can also make Djokovic tire early. So the French captain will probably decide to pick Simon for the first day. For the Sunday games, Djokovic will have to face the unbelievably fit Monfils so if France could get him tired as soon as the Friday, the Serbian ship could sink. Llodra could also come in to play on Sunday, depending on how he feels after the double.
The keys to the tie
The doubles will be a huge point to get under the French team's belt, but it won’t be an easy task considering that Zimonjic has just won the ATP World Tour Finals. But the Llodra/Clément duet has always been very efficient and has some great results of its own.
The French doubles team will be short favourites because Zimonjic will have to play with a non-specialist.
Dealing with emotions will be the other big turning point of this tie. Guy has a lot of experience after having won this event both as a player and as a captain. Gaël’s recklessness could also be an asset, and the same goes for Gille’s fighting spirit and Mika’s game being able to put pressure on the Serbians.
Djokovic's capacity for playing his best tennis and sticking to his world number three banner, as his country is expecting him to do, will be without a doubt the reason Serbia will succeed or fail.
Finally, if Simon can exhaust Djokovic, France would have another reason to hope. We’re all behind France here. We've been waiting for this tie for a long time and we’ll get the first answers pretty soon now…