A Davis Cup final brings a clash of drama and patriotism, styles and characters. In 2002, France came to the title-match against Russia after a streak of 3-2 victories against Netherlands, Czech Republic and the United States. In Paris-Bercy, the Bleus have to play their fourth consecutive fifth and decisive rubber, the most surprising. Captain Guy Forget chose Paul-Henri Mathieu, a 20-year old never in the Davis Cup before, recent champion in Moscow and Lyon, his first two ATP titles. Tarpishev dropped the former World No.1 Yebgeny Kafelnikov, visibly unfit in the previous days, and lifted the spirit of 20-year-old Mikhail Louzhny, brought here as a practice hitter. A clash meant to define their respective careers in the coming years.
Russia, twice runner-up in the 1990, travelled to Paris going in search of its first Davis Cup title. Expectations were at their highest rate. References to the golden era of the Muskateers, abounded on the pages of every paper. President Chirac took time out on his 70th birthday to attend the opening day, next to Boris Yeltsin, at the Palais Omnisports to cheer for his own nation and his former tennis instructor at the Kremlin palace, now seated on the bench as the Russian captain, Shamil Tarpishev. When Safin opened against Paul-Henri Mathieu, a last time replacement for Arnaud Clement, the Palais Omnisports, which seats 16,000, was half empty.
Fans gradually assembled while Mathieu was losing his serve for the first time. Safin, then the world No.3, had won the Masters Series event in that same arena a few weeks before. “You have to understand that I was nervous, of course,” said Safin. “It's a Davis Cup Final, the first match, first point, in front of all the crowd that is cheering for France. It's difficult to play your best”. Even more as yor opponent has just beaten you, in their only previous meeting, in Moscow by taking risks.
But things were different in Paris. Mathieu counterpunched from the baseline and stubbornly attacked the Russian second serves. But he lacked enough consistency to become the first player in 31 years to make his Davis Cup debut in a final and win his opening rubber. Only John McEnroe in 1978 made a successful singles debut, defeating John Lloyd, though he was already a Wimbledon and US Open semifinalist and had played Davis Cup doubles. Other four players have made their singles debuts in the final, and all them lost, including Pete Sampras, not ready to manage the pressure in 1991 when he surrendered to a rejuvenated Henri Leconte and the Forget.
''I think today he was the best player in the world,'' Mathieu said. ''When he plays like that, it's really tough. If I had played really well today, I don't know what might have happened.''
Safin manage to take control of the rallies and his 19 aces did the deal. The Russian didn't offer one of his most scintillating performances, but it didn't matter. Safin won 64 36 61 64 to give first blood to Russia.
Yeltsin face, however, became increasingly thunderous during the second singles of the day. Kafelnikov made the Davis Cup his priority during a disappointing season that saw his slip to No. 27. Winning the Cup, he said, “would leave him with no other significant mountains to climb”, New York Times noted.
Despite his 44-28 Davis Cup record, however, Sébastien Grosjean outclassed him 76 63 60. The Russian, struggling on clay throughout the season, double-faulted and netted a tired forehand to lose his serve to 4-3 in the second set. The match was over. ''It was basically one-way traffic,'' Kafelnikov said. ''I wasn't able to keep up with him in the second and third set.''
Grosjean, ranked 16th, took nine straight games to improve his win-loss record to 6-1 in Davis Cup singles matches in 2002. “It’s one of my best performances in Davis Cup,” he said after his first win in a Davis Cup final live rubber. “It goes with my performances in the semifinals at Roland Garros as the best matches I’ve played for France.”
Good vibrations make a difference in a doubles team. Escude and Santoro were a first-time Davis Cup pairing, though unbeaten in seven matches. They needed all the enthusiasm and resilience to refuse to accept the inevitable, when they trailed by two sets to one and found themselves a break down against Safin and Kafelnikov.
President Yeltsin wore his heart on his sleeves to cheer them during the almost 4-hour long rollercoaster. Kafelnikov, the 1996 singles and doubles champion at Roland Garros, looked leg weary during the first set. Safin's blistering serves put Russia alive after losing the first set and a massive return that looked like the old Kafelnikov, started the breakthrough. Russians broke to lead 3-1 and then served out to take the set and level at one set all and won the third coming back from 1-4 down. “But the broad smile across Yeltsin's normally surly face did not last much longer” Clive White noted on The Telegraph. Escude, who took a tumble in the first set and slightly injured his back, was particularly brave. When they completed the 63 36 57 63 64 win, it looked like the trophy would be staying in Paris.
No team since 1964, in fact, had won the Davis Cup recovering from 1-2 down in the final. And no team since 1978 had failed to seal the cup after winning the doubles rubber in the title-match. The Bleus prepared for the final day as the favourite, given the athletic Safin had has played nine sets in 48 hours. ''We chose this surface with that parameter in mind,'' Escudé said. ''That will play a role, especially because Seb played three sets. It's going to be interesting”.
''First of all, I'm starting with Sébastien Grosjean, and I'm hoping it will be enough,'' Forget said. It won't be. Safin beat the Frenchman for the fifth time in seven career meetings. ''I was praying to finish in three sets,'' Safin said as he won 63 62 76 saving four match points in an epic tiebreaker. Safin, managing to improve his Davis Cup record in singles to 11-10, overwhelmed Grosjean in the first two sets and twice recovered from a break down in the third. In the tiebreak, he knocked an easy volley on the net to give his opponent a 6-5 lead. Safin saved the next set point with a typically forceful first serve, but he needed to wait the 24th point to see Grosjean miss a forehand return to 13-11. But the best was yet to come.
It was all down to a couple of unheralded youngsters, Mathieu and Mikhail Youzhny, making a steady progress up the rankings to No.32. Kafelnikov, part of the team that lost in the final in 1994 and 1995, was clearly all but happy to be replaced. ''My ego is probably somewhere back in Siberia,'' he said. ''But it's in the best interests of the team. That's why it's a team competition. Sometimes you've got to put your personal ambitions somewhere else.''
Mathieu offered a dominant performance through the opening two sets, winning 63 62. Never before had anyone recovered from two sets down to win a decisive fifth rubber in a Davis Cup final.
'The first two sets were not so good, but afterward I played like I can play” said Youzhny, who began to track down the Frenchman groundstrokes and deliver angled passes and precise lobs to come back. He won the third set and found himself two points from defeat serving 4-5 at deuce in the fourth. Youzhny held his nerve, broke the heavy-legged Mathieu's serve in the next game and created a legend.
“Youzhny was exceptional” Patrice Hagelauer, former technical director at the French federation will say to Eurosport remembering that final. “When you're play a final at home and you lose control of the match, in your head it's like Hiroshima. The pressure for a player became unsustainable”.
It became just the second final in 102 years that came down to the fifth set of the fifth match. Also the only previous one involved a relatively unknown Frenchman, Arnaud Boetsch, who saved match points against the Swedish Nicklas Kulti before celebrating the triumph in 1996. Mathieu, chosen for his qualities and his win-streak in the previous weeks, broke down. Forget, however, never regretted his decision. “In the same situation, I would do exactly the same” he said despite the dramatic loss.
The amazing climax brought the atmosphere to a heavy silence as Youzhny served out to love after 4 hours and 24 minutes to seal a career-defining 36 26 63 75 64 win. “Nobody expected he could win after two sets to love. But I think he surprised even himself. He showed he's a real man, a Russian man, and how to fight and get out of a difficult situation”. Winning the title, he summed up, was “better than sex”.
Mathieu and Youzhny, Santoro will admit years later to Eurosport, lived a new and incredible experience in Paris. “Paulo started to doubt in himself, but we have to give credits to Youzhny who elevated his level. Then, in the changing room, it was really tough. Nobody talked at all. You couldn't say Paulo “it's bad” or “it's not so bad”. You could just give him a hug”.