1991 Davis Cup final

Extract from Hard Courts by John Feinstein

Anyone who cares about tennis had to be warmed by the performance of the French in Lyon. After retiring as a full-time player at the end of 1990, Yannick Noah was named captain of the French team. When they reached the final, they were given little chance against the US team.

Noah took a bold gamble, choosing Henri Leconte as his second singles player along with Guy Forget. Leconte had undergone his thid back operation in the summer and was thirty pounds overweight six weeks before the match. But, given a chance by Noah, he worked himself into shape and then became the hero of the final, first by beating Pete Sampras to tie things up at 1-1 on the first day (Andre Agassi had beaten Guy Forget in the opener), and then by pairing with Forget to beat Ken Flach and Robert Seguso in the doubles. That made it 2-1 and set the stage for Forget’s victory over Sampras that clinched the Cup.

It was the first time since 1932, in the days of the French Musketeers, that France had won the Cup, and the celebration the French victory set off was a stark contrast to the ho-hum-who-cares victory celebration the Americans had staged a year earlier in St. Petersburg after beating Australia.

To France, this was a crusade, not the kind of crude, win at-all-costs crusade staged by then USTA President Markin in 1990, but a crusade filled with hard work, self-confidence, and remarkable spirit. To the American players, it had been a chance to pick up some extra dough in perfomance bonuses and endorsement deals. Agassi (who for all his problems in ’91, emerged as a solid Davis Cup player) managed to insult the host country by complaining about the weather in Hawaii. Leave it to Andre to head for McDonald’s in the gastronomic capital of the world.

Henri Leconte, Davis Cup 1991

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography, A champion’s mind:

Davis Cup didn’t mean much to me when I was growing up. I don’t remember watching it on television (and it isn’t like Davis Cup was all over the tube back in the pre-cable days). So I had no preexisting reverence for the event. This made it tough to commit to Davis Cup because, like most top players, I put the ability to perform at my peak in Grand Slams at the top of my priorities. And Davis Cup asked for a lot, timewise.

In 1991, France put together a magical run under captain Yannick Noah, a very popular former player and French Open champion. Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, two flashy lefties, carried the French squad to its first final in the Open era. And the French also had the home-court advantage over their final-rounds rivals – the United States. They chose to play the tie on fast carpet in an indoor stadium in Lyon.

When France announced the surface, US captain Tom Gorman had a stroke of genius – at least theoretically. Although I had lost my US Open title in the “ton of bricks” match, I was the best fast-court player in the nation. I was the ideal guy to have on the squad alongside Andre Agassi. But Gorman seemed to completely forget that I was a rookie on the tour, and he discounted the unique pressure for which Davis Cup is renowned. For some reason, playing for your country on a team can really get to you. Some players are inspired and react heroically; others get cold feet and feel intimidated by nationalistic pressure. Throwing a green player into the cauldron in an away final before a wildly partisan crowd was an enormous gamble.

When I arrived in Lyon, I found the anxiety and stress surprisingly high. I guess that’s partly because all the USTA officials were around, like they always are at Davis Cup, looking over the team’s shoulder. It also had something to do with the fact that this Davis Cup final was a huge, huge deal in France – it seemed like the entire French national press corps had descended on the venue (the Gerland Sports Palace) for the final, hoping to record how France won its first Davis Cup since the days of yore when the famed “Four Musketeers” – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste – reigned over international tennis.

We had a team Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel in Lyon the day before the start of the tie. It was prepared by a famous chef, but even that event was slightly strained, because we were together with a bunch of tennis officials, and we all had to wear a coat and tie. I’ve got nothing against appropriate dress, but it seemed that everything was ceremonial, forced, difficult … when what we really needed as a team was to relax. All these things bore down on me extra hard, because I had been nominated as the number one singles player for the United States. It was like an NFL rookie quaterback getting his first start in the Super Bowl.

Gorman was also uptight; that became evident to me. We were always having these team meetings, and to me that didn’t make sense. They just magnified everything and added to the stress. All my life, I preferred to operate with a low profile – I’d rather be understated than dramatic, cool and aloof rather than confrontational and all gung ho. I just don’t believe in making things bigger than they need to be, even some things that may seem awfully big, like winning the Davis Cup. At the end of the day, it’s easier to take the attitude that they’re just tennis matches; you go out, do your best, let the chips fall where they may.

I was happy to talk with Gore, our veteran captain and a former Davis Cup star himself. I was glad to hear what Andre Agassi thought. But these meetings – everyone was just sitting around talking about the next day’s pratice or the upcoming pairings. Ken Flach, one of the doubles players (partnered with Robbie Seguso), looked at me in one of those meetings and asked, “You going to serve and volley on both serves, Pete?” I just looked at him, thinking, I’m one of the top players in the world, and you’re a doubles specialist who can’t even make it in singles. Where do you get off, asking how I’m going to play?
It sounds arrogant, but I was just feeling prickly and uptight. At the same time, though, I never went into a match with a cut-and-dried game plan. I knew my own strengths and the kind of game I felt most comfortable playing, and tried to be aware of what my opponents did well or badly, and how to get to their games. But I always liked to “feel” my way into a match, fine-tune what I would do based on my level of play and the feedback I was getting from across the net.

The quality of my serve on any given day often dictated how aggressively I played. My feeling for how I moved on a given surface (or on a given day), combined with the quality of my opponent’s return game, determined how often I followed my serve to the net. I operated by instinct, figuring things out as I went along. Flach’s question put me on the spot, seeking a commitment I wasn’t prepared to make. It was innocent enough, I guess; my reaction spoke volumes about how defensive and tense I was feeling.

On top of everything else, the French singles players were veterans capable of playing lights-out tennis. There were no question marks about the team; if anyone could handle pressure of playing at home, it was these guys. The adulation of the home crowd would inspire them. If the fast carpet suited my game, it suited theirs just as well.

I was our number one singles player, but the draw determined that France’s number one (Forget) would open the proceedings againt our number two, Andre. I watched from the bench, cheering Andre on as he took care of business to put us up 1-0. I was impressed and slightly intimidated by the crowd. The place held just over seven thousand, but it was sold out, so the overall effect was of a huge, deafening crowd. My moment of reckoning was rapidly approaching; I was up next, the US number one against France’s number two, Leconte.

Pete Sampras, 1991 Davis Cup final

What happened was, I froze. It was that bad. It was deer-in-the-headlights-grade paralysis. Notice that I didn’t say “I choked”. As I wrote before, there is a big difference. Freezing is worse. It prevents you from getting to that critical point where you can choke (or not).
The score just seemed to fly by, like so many of Leconte’s winners. When I was serving, I’d stand up at the line and wait, while the crowd was going nuts. I just stood there, absorbing all the karmic energy, waiting for them to quiet down. That was a big mistake – I should have asserted greater control over the situation by walking away from the service notch to wait until they calmed down. That would have represented control, and playing at my pace. It was something I learned in Lyon that would come in handy in many later matches.

I lost to Leconte in straight sets and left the court shell-shocked.

On Saturday, the French won the doubles to take a 2-1 lead. On the decisive final day, I faced Forget in the first singles match to keep the US hopes alive. I hadn’t had enough time to process what happened on Friday, or to identify the lessons from my awful first-day experience. I gave Forget only token resistance as he clinched the Cup for France in four sets.

I felt terrible afterward. I’d been overwhelmed. For all the talk about Davis Cup being a team thing, I’d felt very lonely out there – as alone as I would ever feel on a tennis court. Sure, the other guys were right there on the bench, encouraging me. And you have your captain sitting on court with you so you can talk and get advice on changeovers. But people make too much of that. It’s not like you can hand your racket off to a teammate and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this, how about picking up the slack?”
It was a tense and miserable week. Gus, who was my roommate on the trip, tells me that the night we lost, we went to sleep pretty early. I woke some hours later, clearly in the throes of some nightmare, and screamed – at the top of my lungs – Go USA! Then I went back to sleep. I think it was a reaction to the crowd noise during the tie. I had never been exposed to anything like that, and maybe I just needed to fight back or assert myself, even if it was just in a dream and too late to matter.

The explanation for this disaster seems simple. I was the wrong man for the job. And to this day, whenever anyone brings up that tie in Lyon, I just shrug, grin, and tell them “Wrong man for the job”. I don’t want to blame Gorman, or anyone else, but the one thing that was painfully clear by the end of the final against France was that Pete Sampras, a raw youth, was completely unprepared for the demands of Davis Cup play. He was the wrong man for the job.

There was, however, a personal silver lining, Tim Gullikson, waiting in the wings to take over as my coach, saw how much I struggled against the French lefties. He felt that I stood too far to my right when I was receiving serve, exposing too much of my backhand. He wanted me to stand farther to the left to send the signal that I was looking to touch off a big forehand return. It was a cagey move, because lefties just love attacking a righty’s backhand, especially in the ad court. The results were remarkable; I think I won my next thirty-two matches against left-handers after he passed on that tip.
I shudder to think how different my rivalry with Goran Ivanisevic, another lefty, might have turned out had I not changed my receiving stance.

Tsonga and Gasquet

The countdown to the Davis Cup final has begun, follow our Davis Cup final coverage on Tennis Buzz!

Le compte à rebours a commencé, suivez toute l’actualité de la finale de Coupe Davis sur Tennis Buzz!

Wednesday 19 November

The Davis Cup was exposed in the Tennis Village in Lille today. Here are a few pics.

Quelques photos du Village Tennis inauguré ce midi par Martine Aubry et Jean Gachassin place de la République à Lille: des courts de mini-tennis, un court de padel, quelques stands et …. la Coupe Davis:

Davis Cup

Tuesday 18 November

Wawrinka and Federer arrived in Lille yesterday: by Eurostar for Stan, by private jet for Roger.
Really disapointing behaviour by both players who avoided their fans who waited for several hours in front of the Hermitage Gantois and entered their hotel through the kitchen door!

Wawrinka et Federer sont arrivés à Lille hier après midi, Stan par l’Eurostar et Roger en jet privé. Tous deux ont évité leurs fans qui les attendaient depuis plusieurs devant l’Hermitage Gantois et sont entrés dans l’hôtel par la porte des cuisines! Lamentable…

French and Swiss players practiced for the first time today on the clay court of Stade Pierre Mauroy, see video below.

Français et Suisses se sont entraînés pour la 1ère fois sur la terre battue du Stade Pierre Mauroy.

I have tickets for Friday and Saturday’s matches, and that the view I will have:

J’ai des tickets pour vendredi et samedi et je verrai… ça:

Monday 17 November

Lots of talk about Federer’s withdrawal and alleged dispute with Wawrinka in the press today.

Le forfait de Federer à Londres et son altercation avec Wawrinka font la une ce matin:

Le mystère Federer, l'Equipe

Sunday 16 November

They’re coming! The French Davis Cup team is coming to Lille this evening, they will stay at the Hôtel Couvent des Minimes. The Swiss come tomorrow evening, they stay at l’Hermitage Gantois, a former 15th Century hospice that had been coverted into a 5-star hotel.

Ils arrivent! L’équipe de France de Coupe Davis arrive ce soir à Lille, ils logeront à l’hôtel Hôtel Couvent des Minimes, quai du Vault. Les Suisses arriveront lundi soir et logeront à l’Hermitage Gantois, un ancien hospice du XVIè siècle reconverti en hôtel 5 étoiles:

Hospice Gantois, Lille

Photo credit: Velvet

Meanwhile in London, Roger Federer pulls out of his final against Novak Djokovic.

Pendant ce temps-là, à Londres, Roger Federer, blessé au dos, déclare forfait pour la finale des Masters face à Novak Djokovic.

Saturday 15 November

Today we have a look back at the 1992 Davis Cup lost by Switzerland and at the mythic 1991 final won by Henri Leconte and Guy Forget over the american dream team of Agassi, Sampras and Flach-Seguso.

Séquence souvenir: la finale 92 perdue par les Suisses contre les Américains, et la mythique finale 91 remportée par Henri Leconte et Guy Forget face à la dream team américaine d’Agassi, Sampras et Flach-Seguso:

Friday 14 November

Seen in the tramway today, a poster urging people to use public transport to attend the matches.

Vu aujourd’hui dans le tramway, un poster incitant les spectateurs à utiliser les transports en commun pour se rendre au Stade (désolée de la mauvaise qualité):

Tramway Davis Cup poster

Thursday 13 November

While the French Davis Cup team is training in Bordeaux and Federer and Wawrinka are battling in the London ATP finals, the team of Roland Garros head groundsman Bruno Slastan is preparing clay courts at Stade Pierre Mauroy.

Pendant que les Français sont en stage à Bordeaux et que Federer et Wawrinka bataillent au Masters de Londres, l’équipe de Bruno Slastan, responsable des courts à Roland Garros, commence la préparation des courts en terre battue au Stade Pierre Mauroy.


Wednesday 12 November

Autograph session with kids for the French Davis Cup team in Bordeaux.

Séance d’autographes pour les Bleus à Bordeaux:

No autograph session in sight for Les Bleus in Lille, but a few events are planned. The Tennis Village, Place de la République, aims to recreate the Davis Cup atmosphere in the center of Lille, to allow as many people as possible to participate in the event: mini-tennis, competitions, quizzes.. The matches will also be broadcast on a giant screen.

Pas de séance d’autographes prévue à Lille, mais des animations seront organisées Place de la République, pour essayer de recréer l’ambiance Coupe Davis dans le centre de Lille: mini-tennis, concours, quizz… Et bien sûr, les matches seront retransmis sur écran géant.

Tuesday 11 November

Captain Arnaud Clément picks Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau to play the final next week.

Head to head / Face à face
Tsonga – Federer: 5 – 11
Tsonga – Wawrinka: 3 – 2
Monfils – Federer: 2 – 8
Monfils – Wawrinka: 2 – 2
Gasquet – Federer : 2 – 12
Gasquet – Wawrinka: 1 – 1

Head to head on clay / Face à face sur terre battue
Tsonga – Federer: 1 – 2
Tsonga – Wawrinka: 2 – 2
Monfils – Federer: 0 – 4
Monfils – Wawrinka: 0 – 0
Gasquet – Federer: 2 – 2
Gasquet – Wawrinka: 0 – 1

SWI or FRA who will win the Davis Cup final?

  • Switzerland (73%, 45 Votes)
  • France (27%, 17 Votes)

Total Voters: 62

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Monday 10 November

First training day in Bordeaux for Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon.
Début du stage d’entraînement à Bordeaux pour Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon.

Tuesday 4 November

Sans surprise, le capitaine suisse Severin Lüthi a sélectionné les mêmes joueurs que pour la demi-finale contre l’Italie: Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Marco Chiudinelli et Michael Lammer.

Saturday 1 November

Just a few weeks to go to the much awaited final between France and Switzerland!

Plus que quelques semaines avant la finale tant attendue entre la France et la Suisse!

Richard Gasquet, le coq sportif

Saturday 11 October

Behind the scenes of the Stade Pierre Mauroy that will host the final, read my report here.

Visite guidée du Stade Pierre Mauroy qui va accueillir la finale de Coupe Davis, lisez mon reportage ici.

Stade Pierre Mauroy

Saturday 4 October

Bienvenue à Lille for the Davis Cup final! All you need to know if you plan to attend the final: how to get to Lille, buy some tickets and more.

A lire si vous envisagez d’assister à la finale de Coupe Davis: Bienvenue à Lille for the Davis Cup final!

Grand Place

Monday 22 September

The French Tennis Federation announced today the Davis Cup final between France and Switzerland will be staged on clay. Do you really know what clay is made of?

Les Français ont choisi la surface sur laquelle sera jouée la finale de Coupe Davis entre la France et la Suisse, ce sera la terre battue (indoor bien sûr). Découvrez ici ce qu’est réellement la terre battue (article en anglais).

Friday 19 September

It is now official, the Davis Cup final France vs Switzerland will be played in Lille, my hometown! So stay tuned for news, photos and exclusive coverage on Tennis Buzz!

C’est officiel: Lille (la ville où j’habite) accueillera la finale de Coupe Davis entre la France et la Suisse! Suivez toute l’actualité de la finale sur Tennis Buzz!

Also read/à lire aussi:

By Arthur Ashe, September 10, 1991

When I see a match score such as 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, my first reaction is usually this: the winner broke serve twice in the first set, the loser regained his composure in the second set, and either the winner blew him away in the third set or the loser gave up But Jim Courier, loser to Stefan Edberg in the U.S. Open men’s singles final, is not a quitter. Never has been. He just never got the ball past the mid-court stripe. Edberg’s full-court pressure was relentless, precise and effective. The new Open champion has the best volley, best overhead smash and best backhand in the game. His strategy on all surfaces is centered on getting to the net as soon as possible. Thus he takes advantage of any opening to approach the front court. During normal baseline exchanges, Courier can expect his opponents to trade ground strokes with him until a shot lands short in the service court. But for 2 hours 2 minutes Sunday, Courier had to try more passing shots than ground strokes.

Edberg had been in the so-called “zone” (when an athlete can do no wrong) since the fourth round, when he dispatched Michael Chang in straight sets. In this mind-set, he believed he could do anything at any time. He tried shots that usually qualify as risky, and they worked.
Edberg started the match serving down the middle to crowd Courier. Several serves were so well-placed that Courier’s return was more self-defense than forehand or backhand. Courier tried moving his return position up, back, to the left, to the right. Nothing worked. There was one opening at 4-4, 15-30, Edberg serving in the second set. Called for a first-serve foot-fault, Edberg spun in a second serve to Courier’s two-handed backhand, which he nailed cross-court. From knee-high level, Edberg deftly side-spun a backhand volley just inside Courier’s forehand sideline for a clean winner. Courier just smiled the smile of resignation.
On the next point, Edberg was again called for a first-serve foot-fault. Again, he won the point at the net on the second volley. It was Courier’s last stand. He didn’t win another game.

Still, Courier has had a phenomenal year. He is reigning French Open champion and is one of two U.S. men who can presently win major championships on any surface. Andre Agassi is the other one who can, but hasn’t as yet. Although Agassi has garnered more headlines, Courier may well be the anchor in the Davis Cup semifinal against Germany in Kansas City later this month.
That match is on slow clay, so Courier will have to switch surfaces within 10 days. Germany’s Boris Becker, former world No. 1, has announced he is not playing because of a strained right thigh muscle. Agassi was on the squad that beat Australia in last year’s finals, but obviously is not in good form now. Courier will land in Kansas City next week as the No. 1 U.S. player.
Two other results of this year’s U.S. Open: Edberg will enjoy what could be a lengthy period as the best player on the planet and Jimmy Connors will bask in new-found respectability.

1991 US Open champion Stefan Edberg

Washington Post, September 9 1991

There is nothing more beautiful or more breathtaking than Stefan Edberg‘s tennis game when he is on. Every stroke is poetic, every movement lyrical. And today, showing unerring form and grace, Edberg confounded and frustrated Jim Courier to win his first U.S. Open title Edberg’s 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 dissection was evidence that the 25-year-old Swede has overcome his Open phobia and found his center of gravity in New York. Overshadowed all week by the hysteria over Jimmy Connors, and almost forgotten amid the publicity about a pack of new young stars, Edberg’s flawless performance in Louis Armstrong Stadium was a jolting reminder of why he is the top-ranked player in the world.

“It was almost like a dream out there,” Edberg said when the 2-hour 2-minute match ended. “I played as well as I think I can.”

The title marked Edberg’s fifth Grand Slam victory and it offset an otherwise disappointing year. Although ranked No. 1 for most of 1991, he lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon. He had never made it to the final of the Open and was upset in the first round last year; he compensated today with a brilliance and consistency seldom seen in such high-pressure contests.
With his mellifluous strokes and delicate footwork, Edberg danced around the court as gracefully as Fred Astaire. Even Courier, the winner of the French Open in June, recognized that Edberg was on automatic pilot today. “All you can do is hope he goes off,” Courier said.

Always uncomfortable with the hullabaloo of this event, Edberg strategically changed his environment here this year. He played fewer tournaments this summer because he felt his stunning upset last year was a result of fatigue. With his fiancee, Annette Olson, he rented a house on Long Island instead of staying in a hotel in Manhattan. And he delighted when, day after day, Connors stole the attention.
“Nobody was talking about me. That kept the pressure off me, and that’s the way I like it,” said Edberg, an amiable, mild-mannered sort who is most at ease in the peace and quiet of his adopted home, London.
Despite the changes, Edberg, the No. 2 seed, looked shaky in the early rounds. But his game finally clicked when he defeated spunky Michael Chang in straight sets in the fourth round.
“That was the turning-point match,” Edberg said. “I had this feeling maybe I could do it this year, although you’re never really sure.”

By comparison, fourth-seeded Courier, who had a much tougher draw, looked impressive throughout the two weeks. He had not dropped a set, even against defending champion Pete Sampras, whom he ousted in the quarterfinals. A bulldog on the court whose style is a cross between the gutsy Connors and the power-packed Ivan Lendl, Courier hoped to dominate with his big serve and disrupt Edberg’s serve-and-volley game with his thunderous forehand.
Courier had reason to be hopeful. His first title as a professional came two years ago in Basel, Switzerland, when he beat Edberg in the final. In their last meeting, in the French Open quarterfinals, Courier trounced Edberg in four sets. With new-found powers of concentration and a hard-hitting game to go with it, Courier had never lost in the four times he’d reached a final. But whatever optimism Courier had coming into the match quickly crumbled.
He was broken at 1-1 in the first set, a victim of Edberg’s superb passing shots. And he could not convert two break points when Edberg served at 3-2, thanks to an exquisite topspin lob that Edberg hit after loping to the ball.

In the first game of the second set, Courier had a brief flash of brilliance when he staved off three break points with two aces — clocked at 116 and 114 mph — that momentarily put Edberg on the defensive. But that was just an idle diversion.
Never blinking, Edberg continued to arch his whirling, twisting serve deep to the corners with so much kick that Courier occasionally had to block the ball back from above his head. “I was trying to get out of the way of it sometimes,” Courier said.
Even when Courier managed a sensational return, Edberg, as crisp and cool as ever, plucked the ball from the air and smothered a volley. “I was hitting some great shots and he would come up with shots that made mine look like I don’t know what,” Courier said.
Tugging at his ever-present white baseball cap, and with his sweat-drenched shirt hanging out of his shorts, Courier tried to find the grit he needed to thwart Edberg’s relentless attack. He tried clubbing passing shots at Edberg’s feet. No way, Edberg said. He tried elegantly angled slices. Sorry, Edberg said. He tossed up gorgeous lobs. Forget it, Edberg said.
At one point, Courier turned to a fan in the stands and shrugged his shoulders. He sighed, “Wow! What can you do?” The most that Courier could assemble was an occasional winner on his service return, usually a reflexive punch that simply deflected the ball at an incredible angle. Courier finally resorted to standing his racket on its handle to show the umpire the spot where he thought an Edberg ace had landed out.
Edberg’s serves and volleys were so impeccable that he won a staggering 84 percent of the points when his first serve went in. Courier had three chances but never scored a break in the match.

Toward the end, there was nothing more that Courier could do but watch his own demise with awe. “I’ve been pummeled before,” Courier said, “but this is the worst beating I’ve taken all year.”
Edberg, meanwhile, found new affection for this tournament and for New York.

“It is really something to actually win it here,” he said. “I felt so relaxed out there. It’s hard to describe. I’m just a happy guy right now.”