Experienced pair ride to French rescue after Lehecka and Machac threaten huge upset in Group C opener
Serial title winners Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut edged past Czech duo Jiri Lehecka and Tomas Machac to ensure France began their Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals 2021 campaign with a hard-fought victory in Innsbruck.
France were forced to come from behind throughout the tie after debutant Machac dispatched Davis Cup veteran Richard Gasquet in the opening singles clash, with Adrian Mannarino his nation’s saviour as he levelled matters by overcoming Jiri Vesely.
Herbert and Mahut, fresh from topping the podium at the ATP Finals in Turin on Sunday, then picked up the baton and completed the French revival – after an almighty fright – by defeating Lehecka and Machac 36, 64, 63.
Victory propels 10-time Davis Cup champions France to the summit of Group C ahead of their showdown with Great Britain on Saturday, while the Czech’s focus is also on Leon Smith’s team, with the two nations meeting on Sunday.
The match-ups for the pivotal third match were stark. Not only have Herbert and Mahut claimed five Grand Slam doubles titles as a pair, they also have considerable Davis Cup pedigree and have contested nine matches together.
Herbert is also a Davis Cup champion after being part of the France team which beat Belgium in Lille in the 2017 final, while he has lost only one of the nine doubles matches he has fought in the competition.
Mahut, meanwhile, was bidding to extend a nine-match winning streak in Davis Cup doubles matches and had not suffered defeat since he and Herbert were beaten by Croatia’s Ivan Dodig and Mate Pavic during France’s semi-final loss to Croatia in 2016.
Lehecka and Machac, on the other hand, have nothing like that level of experience. Lehecka had contested just one previous Davis Cup doubles match: he and Vesely lost to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mirza Basic and Tomislav Brkic in September 2019.
Machac too has limited exposure in the competition, making his Davis Cup debut only hours before, while he and Lehecka have featured just once before as a partnership, at last year’s Prague Challenger.
Despite their inexperience – Lehecka and Machac’s combined age is 41, whereas Mahut has clocked up 39 years on his own – the intrepid Czech pairing were in no way overawed and threatened a major upset, taking the first set 6-3.
It had all the makings of a fairytale, while if their domination had continued, it would have been one of the greatest Davis Cup upsets in the history of the competition.
However, Herbert and Mahut were never going to go quietly, and they duly forced their way back into proceedings by claiming the second set 6-4, ensuring the tie went the distance.
There was a sense that Lehecka and Machac – the latter replaced Zdenek Kolar from the original Czech nomination – may have missed their chance. Despite the most valiant of efforts, that proved to be the case, with Herbert and Mahut closing out the third set 6-3.
France were only in a position to strike because of Mannarino, who began the fightback with victory over Vesely. Mannarino, who was selected ahead of Arthur Rinderknech despite trailing his teammate in the world rankings, prevailed 67(1), 64, 62.
World No. 71 Mannarino was making just his second Davis Cup appearance, having been defeated by Thiemo de Bakker before overcoming Robin Haase in five sets as France dispatched Netherlands in a World Group first round tussle in 2018.
Despite his lack of Davis Cup experience, Mannarino showed considerable resilience, especially after losing the opening set despite surging into a 5-2 lead. Staring down the barrel of defeat, Vesely instigated a stirring comeback to force a tie-break, during which he was imperious.
The second set, however, belonged to the Frenchman as he claimed an early break of serve before cantering over the line to send the battle of the left-handers to a third and concluding set.
Mannarino flirted with a potentially pivotal break in the opening game, and while his hopes of seizing the early initiative dissipated, the plaudits would be his as he accelerated towards the finishing line.
Earlier, Machac celebrated his maiden appearance for Czech Republic by firing his nation into the lead in the tie with a commanding win over Gasquet.
The 21-year-old was making his competition debut having previously been nominated against Netherlands and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2019 but failing to contest a match in either showdown.
World No. 143 Machac – a far more inexperienced campaigner than his 35-year-old opponent, who was featuring in his 21st Davis Cup tie – overpowered Gasquet in straight sets, 76(3), 62.
Machac showed significant composure on two occasions in the opening set, recovering from a break of serve to immediately hit back and level proceedings at 2-2 before holding his nerve in the tiebreak to prevail 7-6(3).
Gasquet, a member of the France team crowned Davis Cup champions in 2017, was making his first appearance in the competition since September 2018, However, it did not prove a glorious return.
He was forced to save break points in the very first game of the second set but was powerless to halt the Machac charge and eventually succumbed 6-2.