France and Belgium captains face Davis Cup final choices

Ludovic LUPPINO
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France's tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (R) speaks with team captain Yannick Noah during a training session in Villeneuve d'Ascq on November 22, 2017, ahead of their Davis Cup World Group final against Belgium

France and Belgium reached the Davis Cup final by quite different routes, but both captains face similar decisions ahead of the draw at noon on Thursday in Lille.

The biggest question for both Yannick Noah, the French skipper, and his Belgian counterpart, Johan van Herck, is the doubles pairing.

In the singles on Friday, Noah will no doubt open with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (ranked number 15 in the world) and Lucas Pouille (18). Richard Gasquet (31) seems too far behind to risk.

In the doubles, Noah has generally preferred the specialist pairing of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who won the 2015 US Open and the 2016 Wimbledon doubles together. But "P2H" has a back injury which caused the pair to forfeit their last group match at ATP Finals in London on November 16.

"All the players are in good shape, without exception," Noah said.

Nevertheless, Julien Benneteau, a former French Open doubles winner who is back to his best at the age of 35, could still rejoin Mahut in the doubles on Saturday. They played together in the quarter-final in April.

Belgium will be led by seventh-ranked David Goffin, who showed his form by beating Roger Federer to reach the final in London last week.

"France are clearly the favourites because they're playing at home, have won the Davis Cup several times before and have a very consistent team with very good players," Goffin told AFP.

"Obviously being ranked in the top 10 I'm expected to win two points in the singles," he added. "We're convinced we can win otherwise we wouldn't step on the court."

Barring a major surprise, the other Belgian singles player will be Steve Darcis. But who will partner Ruben Bemelmans (118) in the doubles?

Joris de Loore (276) missed the last match against Australia because of a knee operation. Van Herck has named him in the squad but has kept open the option of retaining Arthur de Greef (181).

- Routes to the final -

The Belgians are trying to win their first Davis Cup title. They reached the final in 2015 but lost to a Britain team containing Andy Murray. They had to work hard to return this time.

France are trying to win their tenth silver salad bowl. They had an easy route to their first final since losing to Federer, Stan Wawrinka and the Swiss in 2014.

Belgium were taken to the third day in all of their matches.

They won 4-1 in Germany in the first round despite resting Goffin, although he returned for the quarter-final victory over an Italy team that was without Fabio Fognini.

In the semi-final, against Australia in Brussels, Belgium entered the last day trailing but Goffin fought back to beat Nick Kyrgios before Darcis beat Jordan Thompson in straight sets to stay perfect when playing last.

Meanwhile fortune favoured the French. They faced a Japan team without Kei Nishikori, Britain without Murray and Serbia without Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki.

Yet that semi-final victory over Serbia, also in Lille, was not without some strange elements which raise questions ahead of the final.

As he won the decisive rubber, Tsonga told Noah not to speak to him during the changeovers. The captain spent the weekend alternating between a strange lassitude, as he slumped in his courtside seat, and intense self-criticism until his attitude was transformed on Sunday by victory.

At the press conference after the match he denied any suggestions of a bad atmosphere within the squad.

"It's hard to know what is going on inside the team," said Patrice Hagelauer, who once coached Noah and also the French Davis Cup team.

He said that Cedric Pioline, a former French Davis Cup player, had "also asked Noah to let him have some quiet moments".

Noah, who was captain in 1991-92 and 1995-98 says he is "improved" for his third stint, which began in 2015.

Asked whether he would continue, he added another layer of mystery, saying: "I have no certainty about anything."