Miracle in Lyon: Leconte and Forget gave France the 1991 Davis Cup

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Miracle in Lyon: Leconte and Forget gave France the 1991 Davis Cup

“Do you believe I'm done? Do you believe I can't win another title?”. Yannick Noah wasn't persuaded when his former coach Patrick Hagelauer asked him to become the French Davis Cup captain before the 1991 campaign.

“No, I'm not saying this but it could be an extraordinary experience, you could give our players a lot and they would be enthusiast”. Noah accepted. “If the players really want me, okay”. It was the beginning of a magical adventure.

"His problem is that he's a man of extremes," said Hagelauer. "He can be extremely slow and lethargic, or he can get so pumped up that he wears himself out so fast. It is difficult for him to regulate all that emotion so that he can use it effectively during the points". That man of extremes gave his Davis Cup debut to Fabrice Santoro for the quarter-final tie against Australia.

“Born in Tahiti and raised in southern France, Santoro is best known for his ability to wield a racket with two hands with flair, which led Pete Sampras to dub him the “magician,” wrote John Branch on The New York Times in 2009.

Then an 18-year-old newcomer to the French Davis Cup team, in Nimes he lost his maiden rubber to Richard Fromberg in straight sets but he surprised Wally Masur in the deciding match as the French team moved into the semifinals with a 3-2 victory.

In the semifinal against Yugoslavia, Santoro rallied to beat Slobodan Zivojinovic, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-0), 3-6, 6-3, in 4 hours 10 minutes. Noah, however, had different plans for the title-match in Lyon against the United States.

The captain saw Henri Leconte, the lefty and crafty former idol, sad and alone. Leconte, ranked no.143 at the time because of a streak of injuries, is sipping a glass of a red wine in an empty hotel. Noah, that captain of extremes, surprised him, aroused his pride.

“I need you” Noah simply said him, “not just to play. I need you to win. We can't succeed without you”. Leconte started to cry with an overwhelming joy. Also, Fabrice Santoro cried when Noah announced the team to the final.

“I hoped that Noah would have treated me as a sort of a younger brother, that he would have remembered my victories. Instead, he treated me as an adult, as an average player”. The official dinner grew even tenser and the first training went worse.

Santoro wanted to avenge the perceived betrayal of his idol, who threatened him: “Behave properly or leave the team now!”. Santoro remained as the fifth man. The moment finally arrived. Guy Forget was offered the chance to raise the curtain of the 80th Davis Cup final against Andre Agassi, who took a crucial win against Michael Stich in the semifinal.

After three squandered Grand Slam finals, Agassi aimed to win the Davis Cup to change people's perception of his value. "I'd have to agree that I hadn't handled pressure situations as well as I could have, that I was starting to get older and I should start accepting a few responsibilities when it comes to my game," he said after that semifinal win.

The Gerland Sports Palace in Lyon held just over seven thousand fans, but it was sold out. The overall effect was a huge, deafening crowd, that became increasingly subdued as Agassi completed a 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 victory by Andre Agassi over the French number 1.

The American committed 25 errors in a 76-minute first set, and only 16 more until the end of the match. "After that first set we were both drained physically and emotionally, but I think he got a little more fatigued than I did and after that, I felt completely in control," said Agassi.

"Tactically, he was dictating the game, and I didn't have the weapons to solve it," said Forget who decided to abandon his attack-minded plan to counter his opponent from the baseline. "He was the master on the court; it wasn't the pressure.

I just couldn't catch him anymore". When France had announced the surface, Tom Gorman had a theoretical stroke of genius. He chose a debutant Pete Sampras, the best fast-court player in the nation, alongside Andre Agassi.

“When I arrived in Lyon, I found the anxiety and stress surprisingly high. I guess that’s partly because all the USTA officials were around, like they always are at Davis Cup, looking over the team’s shoulder” he wrote in A champion's mind.

“Gorman was also uptight; that became evident to me. We were always having these team meetings, and to me, that didn’t make sense. They just magnified everything and added to the stress. All my life, I preferred to operate with a low profile – I’d rather be understated than dramatic, cool and aloof rather than confrontational and all gung-ho”.

Sampras knew his own strengths and the kind of game he felt most comfortable playing. “But I always liked to “feel” my way into a match, fine-tune what I would do based on my level of play and the feedback I was getting from across the net,” he wrote.

During that weekend, he felt defensive and tense, “impressed and slightly intimidated by the crowd (…). What happened was, I froze. It was that bad. It was deer-in-the-headlights-grade paralysis. Notice that I didn’t say “I choked”.

As I wrote before, there is a big difference. Freezing is worse. It prevents you from getting to that critical point where you can choke (or not).
The score just seemed to fly by, like so many of Leconte’s winners.

When I was serving, I’d stand up at the line and wait, while the crowd was going nuts. I just stood there, absorbing all the karmic energy, waiting for them to quiet down. That was a big mistake – I should have asserted greater control over the situation by walking away from the service notch to wait until they calmed down.

That would have represented control, and playing at my pace. It was something I learned in Lyon that would come in handy in many later matches”. Sampras made his Davis Cup debut with a double fault. It was the beginning of a baptism by annihilation.

“The unassuming arena was transformed into an unamicable caldron by Leconte, who stalked the court like the rooster that serves as the emblem for France's national sports teams,” Robin Finn wrote in his New York Times report.

“And while Leconte dealt Sampras a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 thrashing, the crowd did the crowing”. They chanted his nickname, “Riton, Riton” as Leconte smashed 34 winners losing serve just once in the whole match.

"I can't remember playing such a complete match, a perfect match, from beginning to end," said Leconte, who blasted 12 aces, patrolled the net against the world no.6, and broke when it mattered the most, at 5-5 in the second and 4-4 in the third.

Leconte came back on the court after less than 24 hours to play the doubles with Guy Forget. They hadn't lost a Davis Cup rubber yet and managed to extend their unbeaten record to 8-0. “On a gray Saturday in a stadium on the banks of the Rhone River, the U.S.

doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso sank like a leaky boat, 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2,” Thomas Bonk wrote in his piece on the Los Angeles Times. Forget and Leconte finished with 50 winners, 23 more than Flach and Seguso, the No.

2 doubles team surrendering to the second defeat in 12 Davis Cup matches, and also won 23 of 25 points at the net. Seguso was broken in the first game, charging the French team even higher. "We knew then that it was going to be a long day," Flach said.

"The bad start is what did it, probably cost us the match". No team had come from a 2-1 deficit to win a final since Australia defeated the United States in 1964. Team USA had turned the trick for the last time in a final in 1902 against Britain.

To repeat that feat, Gorman relied on Pete Sampras again. The night before the match, Guy Forget struggled to sleep. At 1 am, he was awake, like Yannick Noah who decided to go out on rue Mercière. He went into the famous bistrots lining on the road and drank with the fans.

“We need to support Guy tomorrow, we can't leave him alone,” the captain asked them. “I've never seen such an unconditioned support for a player” Noah would admit. The Gerland became a boiling arena.

Forget, who came into the match with a 12-4 record in Davis Cup play, served more aces than the American, 17-14. He had put an initial dent in Sampras's confidence in the first-set tiebreaker. The American had served an ace to go ahead 6-5, but he replied with an ace of his own to save the set point.

The Frenchman went on to win the next two points to claim the tiebreaker. Sampras won the second set 6-3, but then, as he admitted in his autobiography, “the one thing that was painfully clear by the end of the final against France was that Pete Sampras, a raw youth, was completely unprepared for the demands of Davis Cup play.

He was the wrong man for the job”. Forget fired off four aces, two of them down the middle, and saved three break points as he served to claim the third set. He saved 12 of 13 break points to clinch a 7-6 3-6 6-3 6-4 win.

France won their first Davis Cup since 1932 when it defeated the United States for its sixth triumph in a row. "I don't think the American team realized how much Davis Cup meant to the French team and public," said Forget.

"We have World Cup soccer, the Tour de France and Davis Cup, but in America, they have 10 different things more important than Davis Cup." .