In 2017, when Yannick Noah led his team out at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, it had been 16 years since France had lifted the Davis Cup trophy. Although they’ve never regained the golden era that saw them unbeaten in the final for the six years between 1927 and 1932, over the past decade they have made regular appearances in the quarter-finals and beyond.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Lucas Pouille, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Richard Gasquet were all representing France that weekend in 2017, although they had been helped to the final by four others, Julien Benneteau, Jeremy Chardy, Nicolas Mahut and Gilles Simon, showing the immense strength in depth that France has.
Tsonga, world No.15 was a powerful weapon for the French. Pouille, as number two was in the world top 20 and had made the US Open and Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2016.
France reached the final in 2017 with wins over Great Britain and Serbia, and now faced a Belgian team that had been finalists just two years earlier, where they lost to Great Britain. Belgian number one David Goffin’s fearsome win-loss record in the competitionand world No.7 ranking were a huge threat to the French. The Belgians also counted Steve Darcis, who had already notched up five wins in five decisive Davis Cup fifth rubbers – would it come down to a sixth in 2017?
The first day saw a win apiece for the two nations as Goffin beat Pouille, and Tsonga saw off Darcis, both in straight sets. This set up an important doubles match for the following day, with specialists Gasquet and Herbert taking on Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore. The atmosphere in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy was electric as the French took the first set 61, before Belgium took the second, setting up a spectacular battle. The third set went to a tie-break, which the French won, and Gasquet and Herbert quickly secured the fourth to take France into the final day 2-1 up.
The two number ones met first on the Sunday and it was Goffin, unbeaten in the Davis Cup that year who cemented his 6-0 streak with a 76(5) 36 62 win over Tsonga.
The weight of a title on Darcis and Pouille
And so, it was another Davis Cup, another decisive fifth rubber for Darcis, who this time would take on Pouille. Ranked world No.76, the Belgian first played for his country in the Davis Cup back in 2005, and had been a stalwart of the team ever since. Despite his heroic record in decisive fifth rubbers, this year it was Pouille who took the win – and the title – for France, defeating Darcis 63 61 60.
“I’m so proud of my team,” said Pouille. “We really wanted this trophy and finally we’ve got it after 16 years.”
As a player, Yannick Noah had competed in numerous Davis Cup encounters since his debut in 1978 against Great Britain. As captain, this was his third title, adding to his victories in 1991 against the USA and 1996 against Sweden.
“What a grand finale,” he said. “To have Lucas playing in his home town and winning the last game in Davis Cup, playing the way he played… it’s so beautiful.”
France lifted the trophy for the tenth time in their history, assigning Belgium to the more sombre record of a third runners-up place, bringing them on a par with India and Romania as the country with the most final appearances without a title win.
Even so, Belgium’s captain, Johan Van Herck remains optimistic that the team will lift the trophy in the future.
"Even though we lost today, we showed that one day we will win the Davis Cup," he said. "Of course we're disappointed but we have to accept it. We win together, we lose together, and we can be proud of what we did."