Lille, France — France captain Yannick Noah’s gamble on players and court surface backfired against Croatia in the Davis Cup final on Friday.
Noah chose Jeremy Chardy and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to meet Croatia on indoor clay, and they were thrashed in straight sets on the first day, leaving the Croats on the verge of their second Davis Cup crown.
Borna Coric dismantled Chardy 6-2, 7-5, 6-4, and Marin Cilic defeated Tsonga 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 at Pierre Mauroy Stadium in the opening singles.
Croatia, which won its sole title in 2005, leads 2-0 and can relieve the Davis Cup from the defending champion in northern France by winning the doubles on Saturday.
The Croatians clearly have the best players, who have not lost away from home since 2015. History also plays in their favor: Not since Australia in 1939 has any team recovered from a 2-0 deficit in a final.
With the French missing their three highest-ranked players — Richard Gasquet pulled out injured while Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon were overlooked — Noah decided to open with Chardy instead of Lucas Pouille, who clinched the 2017 final. Playing in his first Davis Cup final, Chardy was demolished by Coric.
Tsonga was sidelined by a knee injury for seven months until September. His lack of competitive matches became obvious, as he was second-best in all aspects and injured toward the end of his match.
When asked about his selections, Noah said, “You can try to rewrite history, but it does not work that way.”
A glimmer of hope remains, though, thanks to Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The French pair reached the final at the ATP Finals last week and is slightly favored against Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig on Saturday.
“As long as we are not definitely dead, we always try to hang on to something,” said Noah, who guided France to three previous Davis Cup final triumphs, but none from behind.
France hoped the slow surface would be a problem for Cilic and Coric, who had to quickly adapt to clay after playing last week on a hard court at the ATP Finals in London. Cilic played in the elite event, while Coric practiced as a reserve.
But the Croats were unfazed and excelled in front of a hostile crowd.
“The court was actually really good, there were not so many bad bounces, it was quite hard, even for indoors,” Cilic said.
Tsonga faced an onslaught from Cilic in the opening set and had no answers. The seventh-ranked player won his first three service games at love, broke for 4-2 after Tsonga made a couple of backhand errors, and held at love again to seal the opener.
The Frenchman played too short when not hitting too long, and exposed himself to Cilic’s ferocious forehand attacks.
In a tight second set, Cilic coped with the pressure to save two break points in the eighth game, and Tsonga cracked with unforced errors. A backhand wide handed Cilic a 6-5 lead and the former U.S. Open champion wrapped up the set at love on serve.
He broke again for 3-2 in the third set after a Tsonga double fault, and held on.
Earlier, the 12th-ranked Coric was flawless and Chardy was powerless to counter his deep groundstrokes in the first set, dropping 14 consecutive points at one point to trail 4-0.
The Frenchman changed his strategy in the second set and tried to force Coric into longer rallies but failed to convert his rare chances. Despite vociferous support from the crowd which often showed no respect for Coric by applauding his first service errors, Chardy missed two break points in the fourth game.
Coric broke for 6-5 after hitting a superb lob that Chardy could not return, followed by a pin-point forehand return that pushed the Frenchman to commit a mistake.
In the last set, Coric earned another break in the third game. After getting his legs massaged by Croatia captain Zeljko Krajan, he briefly left the court after the seventh game for treatment but did not look hampered once he returned.
“The pain was going up and up so I decided to stop and stretch my leg and put some cream on it. It’s not a problem, it’s just painful,” Coric said.
Croatia is trying to win its second Davis Cup title in its third final, while defending champion France is bidding for an 11th title.