By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – When the players of France and Croatia step onto the clay court laid down inside Lille’s huge Stade Pierre Mauroy on Friday it will mark the end of an era for the 118-year-old Davis Cup.
This year’s final will be the last in its current guise after the International Tennis Federation’s decision to revamp the team event starting in 2019.
It has not been a pain-free process and fans and players alike will lament the scrapping of the ‘home and away’ format which has been such an integral part of the Davis Cup’s charm.
Next year, after an initial qualifying round in February, 18 nations will assemble in Madrid in November to compete in a week-long competition to find an overall winner.
French doubles player Pierre-Hugues Herbert is unequivocal when asked what this week’s showdown in Lille means.
“They are killing the competition that has been here for decades and for us we see it as the last final,” Herbert, runner-up with Nicolas Mahut at last week’s ATP Finals, told Reuters ahead of the tie.
“The next one will maybe have the same name but will be something new and something we don’t know but we will see what happens. It definitely feels like it’s the last one.”
“(The ITF) tried to think of something new and it needed it because the best players were not playing. But I think the changes they have done are the worst for the competition.”
With the announcement of the ATP Cup to start in Australia in January 2020, just six weeks after the new Davis Cup finale, there are doubts over whether two team competitions can exist, especially in such close proximity on the calendar.
The ATP Cup’s slot, just before the Australian Open, makes it an attractive proposition for the players.
But for this weekend, at least, the Davis Cup will have the spotlight for a final in which Croatia, hoping to repeat their 2005 triumph, will start slight favourites.
France captain Yannick Noah, who led his country to the title last year and will be in charge for the last time before Amelie Mauresmo takes over, is without several top names.
Richard Gasquet is injured and Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon are missing, yet with a fanatical home crowd cheering every point, Les Blues will still feel confident of back-to-back titles for the first time since 1932.
In world number 32 Lucas Pouille and number 40 Jeremy Chardy they still boast two dangerous singles players while Mahut and Herbert are the reigning French Open doubles champions.
Noah also has former world number five Jo-Wilfried Tsonga up his sleeve after including the injury-troubled 33-year-old in his squad for the final.
France have won their last six ties on home soil but Zeljko Krajan’s Croatia will certainly not be intimidated by the raucous atmosphere they will encounter.
Marin Cilic, the world number seven, is vastly-experienced on the big stages and has won 27 of his 38 Davis Cup singles.
Youngster Borna Coric has risen to 12th in the ATP rankings this season and has twice sealed victory for Croatia during their run to the final, most notably winning the fifth rubber in the semi-final against American Frances Tiafoe in Zadar.
In Franko Skugor and Mate Pavic they also have a formidable doubles lineup while 35-year-old Ivan Dodig adds useful backup.
“We’re having another opportunity now. Two years ago we were close,” Cilic said, referring to the 2016 in which Croatia lost to Argentina. “We have a good chance. But it’s going to be a fight, a big battle against France.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)