France nears a second straight Davis Cup title

Posted: Sunday, December 01, 2002

PARIS -- With its resilient doubles team buoyed by a crowd pounding ThunderStix, France closed in on a second straight Davis Cup title.

Nicolas Escude and Fabrice Santoro gave the French a 2-1 lead against Russia in the best-of-five final Saturday, beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that lasted more than 3 1/2 hours.

France can claim its 10th Davis Cup title if Sebastien Grosjean defeats Safin in Sunday's first singles match.

''It's not over yet,'' Escude said. ''The main goal is to win Sunday evening.''

Still, a trend runs heavily in France's favor: The team winning the doubles has won the last 24 Davis Cup finals.

France last won back-to-back Davis Cup titles in 1932. Russia has never won the trophy and is playing in its third final.

''We gave 150 percent of what we were able to give today,'' Santoro said. ''It was tough because they were hitting very hard and very fast.''

French captain Guy Forget is expected to choose between Santoro and Davis Cup newcomer Paul-Henri Mathieu for Sunday's final match against Kafelnikov. Mathieu lost to Safin in four sets on Friday.

While the French have room to maneuver, the Russians are strictly a two-man operation in Kafelnikov and Safin.

Santoro and Escude were cheered on by a partisan crowd of about 15,000, some of whom banged the ThunderStix so popular among fans during the World Series.

Escude and Santoro won the doubles title at the Paris Masters in November but had little experience playing together before that tournament.

''Friendship always plays an enormous role in that kind of thing,'' said Escude, who clinched the Davis Cup title last year in the last match against Australia. ''We were pushing each other. When I missed an easy point, he was encouraging me, and vice versa.''

Safin and Kafelnikov, meanwhile, showed few signs of camaraderie aside from a few hand slaps between points.

Safin has acknowledged that he and Kafelnikov are ''not very good friends,'' although his teammate has described their relationship as ''outstanding.''

Safin will have played nine sets when he faces Grosjean, who needed only three sets to beat Kafelnikov on Friday.

''The matches are not over,'' said Kafelnikov, who has said he'll retire if Russia wins. ''There is always another day.''

After losing the first set, the Russians turned the match around with powerful groundstrokes and strong serves. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin rose from his seat to applaud a shot by Kafelnikov.

Escude fell on his back near the end of the third set, which the Russians won, and left the court to be examined by a doctor. He returned and the French lost the first two games of the next set.

But just as Kafelnikov and Safin looked set to take the match, the French dug in at the net.

''At one point, I said to Nicolas: 'Now we have to bend our knees and play as if we are a wall, and not miss a single volley,''' Santoro said.

The French won six of the next seven games to cheers from a crowd that sang the ''Marseillaise,'' the French national anthem, after France evened the match at two sets apiece.

''We gave them their confidence back, and then basically we had to start the whole match again,'' Kafelnikov said.

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