2018, the last finals of the old Davis Cup format, saw a showdown between Croatia and defending champions, France. In 2005, Croatia had won its first Davis Cup trophy since entering the competition in 1993, becoming the first unseeded nation to win the title. In 2016, they had a second chance for glory, coming up short to a triumphant Argentina who instead took its first victory in the competition. Would the 2018 final go Croatia’s way this time? 

Captain Zeljko Krajan’s team had already had a phenomenal run to the final with wins against Canada, Kazakhstan and the USA, all teams with enviable records in the competition. Once again, the final was held at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, where France had celebrated their win over Belgium the year before. 

The Croatian team had the perfect combination of youth, with world No.12 Borna Coric, just 22 years old; experience, provided by the mighty Marin Cilic, 2014 US Open champion and already veteran of 11 Davis Cup campaigns; and specialism, with Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig, between them winners of multiple ATP Tour doubles titles.,

The opening day’s singles saw Coric take a straight sets victory over France’s Jeremy Chardy, before Cilic took to the court to confront Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The match would ordinarily have been a crowd-thrilling, high-energy battle between two of tennis’s top-billed players, but Tsonga had only recently returned from knee surgery. His world ranking had fallen to No.259 and Cilic took the match in straight sets 63 75 64.

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The Croatian team holding the Davis Cup trophy after their victory

Doubles pressure

The pressure was now on the French doubles pairing of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut to get France back into the tie. The first two sets went France’s way, but Pavic and Dodig were not going to relinquish Croatia’s lead without a fight. They took the third set before forcing Herbert and Mahut to a tie-break in a fourth that lasted more than an hour, with the Frenchmen eventually prevailing to take France into Sunday’s singles matches 2-1 up. 

 

The hero returns

This was the match the crowd had been waiting for. Pouille became a French hero – in this very stadium, in his home region – the year before when he clinched the Davis Cup for France in the deciding fifth set against Belgium’s experienced Steve Darcis. 

This time his opponent was Cilic, who at the same stage in the final against Argentina in 2016 was pitted against the mighty Juan Martin del Potro, who came back from two sets to love down to beat the Croatian in a gruelling five sets. Would that defeat still be on his mind? 

To the crowd’s delight, Pouille pushed the Croatian to a tie-break in the first set. But if Cilic had any lingering memories of 2016, he put them firmly to the back of his mind, securing the tie-break and taking the next two sets to give Croatia only their second Davis Cup title and making this the fifth victory for an away team in the previous six finals.

“It’s not every day that you become a world champion,” said Cilic. “For us, it’s a dream come true, for this nation, we are so passionate. You can see the fans, they are enjoying themselves, and I feel that in Croatia, it’s going to be incredible, too.”

French captain, Yannick Noah, who had led his country to three Davis Cup titles already, acknowledged Croatia’s strength. “They destroyed us,” he said. “They did not give us a single break.”

Croatia qualified for the new-format Davis Cup Finals in 2019, but, without Cilic, who had to withdraw due to a knee injury, the team failed to make it out of their group to progress to the quarter-finals. In 2021 they will meet Australia and Hungary in Group D, and with Cilic and Coric both on form, anything is possible. 

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In a gesture of sportsmanship that was covered by the media around the world, the French team requested access to the Croatian dressing room to congratulate the champions.