By Martyn Herman
LILLE, France (Reuters) – Marin Cilic clinched Croatia’s second Davis Cup title by crushing France’s Lucas Pouille 7-6(3) 6-3 6-3 to give his side a decisive 3-1 lead in an historic final at Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy on Sunday.
The powerful world number seven was relentless as he snuffed out any hope of a famous French fightback — giving Pouille little chance of extending the last final in the 118-year-old competition’s current guise into a deciding fifth rubber.
Pouille, 24, did not have a single break point and despite pushing Cilic hard in the first set, he lost the last four points of the tiebreak and never threatened a comeback.
Cilic wasted four set points when Pouille battled back from 0-40 down at 2-5 in the second set but with his own serve rock-solid he calmly moved into a two-set lead.
The mainly French 22,000 crowd kept roaring their support for Pouille, but it was the Croatia contingent, decked out in their distinctive red and white, who would soon be celebrating.
Cilic broke for a 3-2 lead in the third set and then closed in for the kill when Pouille served at 3-5.
The Frenchman saved two match points from 0-40 but Cilic would not be denied and finished it off with a delightful lob.
Immediately the 30-year-old former U.S. Open champion was swamped by a swarm of his team mates as Croatia could begin the party after emulating their triumph of 2005.
Croatia’s sports-mad President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was among the fans at courtside to savour a landmark title which offered a measure of consolation after France beat Croatia in this year’s soccer World Cup final.
“It’s not every day that you become a world champion,” Cilic, draped in a Croatian flag, said on court.
“For us it’s a dream come true, for this nation. You can see the fans are so passionate and they are here enjoying themselves. In Croatia it’s going to be incredible too.”
Whatever happens in the future Croatia’s win will have a special place in the record books as this was the last ‘one on one’ final before the competition undergoes a major revamp.
The 16-team World Group, established in 1981, will be scrapped next year in favour of an 18-nation World Cup-style finals week that will take place in Madrid.
Hosts and defending champions France had begun the day holding out hope of becoming the first team to overturn a 2-0 deficit in the final since Australia beat the U.S. in 1939.
But there was to be no fairytale ending for French captain Yannick Noah in his last match in charge of Les Bleus.
Noah had surprisingly left Pouille, the highest-ranked player in his team, out of Friday’s opening singles matches and the gamble backfired as Jeremy Chardy was hammered by Borna Coric and Cilic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
After Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won Saturday’s doubles to keep the tie alive, Noah restored Pouille in a bid to take down Croatian talisman Cilic.
He hung on grimly in the first set, saving a break point at 4-4 with a beautiful dropshot. Cilic twice held serve to stay in the opener and then struck in the tiebreak.
He opened a 5-3 lead then latched onto a Pouille serve to crush a forehand winner before converting his first set point with a dropshot of his own.
An animated Noah was up and down out of his seat, firing up his man and the crowd. In contrast his opposite number Zeljko Krajan sat back and let Cilic go calmly about his business.
Cilic’s weight of shot allowed him to break decisively in the fifth game of the second set.
He squandered a two-set lead in the fourth rubber of the final against Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in 2016 — a defeat that cost Croatia the title.
Yet he was never going to let Pouille off the hook and when he broke the Frenchman’s serve at 2-2 in the third, any lingering belief Pouille had retained quickly ebbed away.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)