ROUEN, FRANCE: Strength in depth is all very well, but Arnaud Clement, the new captain of France, knows that he needs a big year from his No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga if he is to end a 12-year drought in terms of ultimate Davis Cup by BNP Paribas success this year. Despite its reputation for heroics, Israel is unlikely to foil his ambition at this embryonic stage of the competition this weekend in Rouen.
The fact that a quarterfinalist at the recent Australian Open is only here, essentially, as a hitting partner for France says everything about the magnitude of the task facing Eyal Ran’s team. It also says something about France’s makeup that could be crucial to Clement’s future success: one, obviously, that his country has great strength in depth to be able to afford to leave out a player as good as Jeremy Chardy and two, and just as importantly, the renowned camaraderie of the French team established under Guy Forget is set to continue under Clement.
He was obviously the choice of the players as well as the French Federation, which he duly confirmed here when he said: “It was a decision from the players and for me, yeah, it’s a fantastic opportunity. I know very well the players from the Tour and Davis Cup competition, so I think I know my players very well. I think it’s a big advantage.”
France will be hoping that his first-hand knowledge could make the difference; although it’s hard to think of a captain who was closer to his players than Forget. A key factor could be his ability to help his world No. 8 Tsonga close the gap with the world’s leading four which in turn could be of great help to France’s Davis Cup cause.
“We have to all improve on the Tour and maybe one or two of us get closer to the top five, maybe then we’ll have a chance,” said Tsonga.
Third division Rouen failed to spring a surprise in the French Cup the other night here against first division Marseilles and Israel’s tennis players are similarly unlikely to do any better. But they are, of course, renowned fighters who regularly punch above their weight, most famously doing so in 2009 when they reached the semifinals. However, any idea that they have the element of surprise, inasmuch as they know all about the French while the French know little about them, is a fallacy.
Amir Weintraub, who faces Tsonga in the opening rubber, told DavisCup.com that Clement watched all his matches in Australia. Tsonga remarked that he had “a pretty good backhand”. But it’s a great opportunity for the world No. 199 which he means to grab with both hands. It was his victory in the final rubber against Japan in the World Group play-offs last September that gave Israel this opportunity of facing the crème de la creme.
“Of course, I’m a big, big underdog and I’ve never played a guy who is top 10 in the world, so I don’t know how it’s going to be – all I can do is fight,” he said. “I want to be an ATP top ranked player not only in Davis Cup so I need to be exposed to this level.”
Dudi Sela, the Israel No. 1, is familiar with all the French players, having played them many times as a junior, and probably represents Israel’s best chance of taking this World Group first round tie to a third day of live action. However, his opponent in the second rubber, Richard Gasquet, is up and running already this year and back in the top 10. He won the Qatar Open in Doha before reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, where he lost in four sets to Tsonga.
This will be the first time any of them have played at the impressive new Kindarena in Rouen. The surface is fast with a low bounce. Turning, according to Weintraub, is tricky. Normally, the doubles can be relied upon to provide a point for the Israelis, but with Andy Ram present but injured, Jonathan Erlich is scheduled to play alongside Sela. Even their excellent first-choice team would be pushed to beat Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau, so Sela may need to find a way past Gasquet to sustain Israeli interest until the reverse singles.
“We won against Russia – a big team like that – before so we have belief in ourselves,” he said. His captain concurred. “I believe in my players,” Ran said. “They’ve proved before that in Davis Cup they can raise their game. I’m sure we will have some chances.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v Amir Weintraub (ISR)
R2: Richard Gasquet (FRA) v Dudi Sela (ISR)
R3: Julien Benneteau/Michael Llodra (FRA) v Jonathan Erlich/Dudi Sela (ISR)
R4: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v Dudi Sela (ISR)
R5: Richard Gasquet (FRA) v Amir Weintraub (ISR)
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Captain Arnaud Clement (FRA) - 31/01/2013
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) - 31/01/2013
Captain Eyal Ran (ISR) - 31/01/2013
Dudi Sela (ISR) - 31/01/2013
Amir Weintraub (ISR) - 13/01/2013