December 1, 1996: France edges Sweden in an outstanding Davis Cup final

December 1, 1996: France edges Sweden in an outstanding Davis Cup final

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Over the course of history, Davis Cup finals were not only the pinnacle of the tennis season but also the arenas of some of the greatest matches ever, and 26 of those had to be decided in the live 5th rubber. One of the most entertaining and thrilling finals was seen in 1996 when Sweden hosted France in Massan Hall in Malmo, and on December 1 the crowd got a chance to see 2 outstanding matches that lasted 9 hours and 13 minutes combined! After all kind of drama and excitement, it was Arnaud Boetsch who delivered the deciding win over Nicklas Kulti to bring the title for France, but he had to give his best to survive a stern challenge from the home player. The final will also be remembered as the swan song from great Stefan Edberg, who injured himself in the opening rubber against Cedric Pioline.

He was able to complete that match, which Pioline won by 6-3 6-4 6-3, but he twisted his ankle in the first set and this proved to be his last match in a career. He was supposed to play that 5th rubber against Boetsch, whom he beat 10 out of 11 times they've met, but he couldn't train on Saturday due to the pain in the ankle and he had to be replaced by Kulti.

In the second match on Saturday, Thomas Enqvist took down Arnaud Boetsch by 6-4 6-3 7-6(2) to level the score at 1-1 and keep the home nation in the hunt. Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux delivered the second point for France on Saturday, ousting Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti in 4 sets (Bjorkman got broken 4 times), and they were a win away from the first title in 5 years.

Also, the tradition worked against Sweden too, losing all Davis Cup finals when they failed to clinch the doubles point, and that proved to be true this time as well. What happened on Sunday is written down in the tennis history books as one of the greatest days in the history of the competition, with both matches passing the 6-6 mark in the 5th set to keep those with feeble heart away from the stands or the TV.

Thomas Enqvist stepped to the court on Sunday as the biggest hope for Swedes, winning the indoor tournaments in Stockholm and Paris prior to this final, and playing well on Friday in that second rubber. After 4 hours and 26 minutes of titanic battle, Thomas produced a miracle comeback against Cedric Pioline, prevailing by 3-6 6-7(8) 6-4 6-4 9-7 to perform one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the game.

Pioline was 6-3 7-6 4-2 in front when Enqvist set the comeback trail, rattling off 4 games in a row to steal the third set and get himself back into contention. Flying on the wings of the home crowd support, Enqvist won the 4th set by the same scoreline and the stage was set for the deciding set, a must-win one for the home player.

They both saved the best for the 5th set and it was Pioline who was 2 points away from notching the title for France in game 14, but Enqvist survived in that game to level the score at 7-7. That game proved to be even more massive when Thomas broke a few minutes later to take a deciding 8-7 advantage, and he sealed the deal with a good hold in game 16 to wrap up the win for Sweden and send this outstanding tie into the 5th rubber.

Instead of Edberg, Nicklas Kulti held the dreams of the nation in his hands and he gave everything he had against Arnaud Boetsch, losing the match 7-6 2-6 4-6 7-6 10-8 in 4 hours and 47 minutes, wasting 3 match points at 7-6 in the 5th set! Boetsch repelled all the obstacles to score the victory of his career and claim the title for France, becoming the first player in history who saved a match point in the deciding Davis Cup final match.

Kulti was crushed, battling with heavy cramps in the last set to somehow earn those match points, and he could have won all the sets he lost! He squandered 2 set points in the 12th game of the first set before losing it in the tie break, but that only motivated him to push even stronger, taking the next 2 sets to bring Sweden a set away from the title.

He had the victory in sight with a break point in the 9th game of the 4th set, but Boetsch fends it off to stay alive, and it was a game changer! Frenchman won the tie break by 7-5 and it was all-or-nothing 5th set to determine the champion.

Kulti struggled more and more as the match progressed, unable to sit down during the breaks and standing near his bench in desperate tries to recover at least some of his energy. He had a colossal opportunity to grab the win in the 14th game and become a national hero, with 3 match points on the return.

Arnaud stayed composed and he repelled them all (2 service winners), leveling the score at 7-7 to extend this already epic encounter. Boetsch broke in the 17th game and he was now serving for the win, leading 9-8. Everything was over when Kulti sent a forehand long in that 18th game and France could start a huge celebration.

Yannick Noah did something amazing, making this final even better with a great gesture, as he took Stefan Edberg to his shoulders and make a lap of honor around the court with a multiple Grand Slam champion who had to end his career in an undesired circumstances just 2 days ago.

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