ROUEN, FRANCE: Arnaud Clement’s reign as France captain may have got off to a flying start, but it was not without its teething problems in the opening rubber of their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round match against Israel at the new Kindarena in Rouen.
Complacency was always going to be the biggest threat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No. 8, in the first rubber when he faced Amir Weintraub, a player ranked 191 places beneath him. And when you factor in the spirit of a player who believed he deserved to be on the same court as the Frenchman and who had a weapon in his arsenal that was capable of backing it up, suddenly the formality of victory isn’t a formality any more.
In the end Tsonga needed all of his guile to pull through, winning 63 63 46 75. The second rubber was indeed a formality as Richard Gasquet, with the benefit of knowing that his team was already ahead, proved much too good for the thoroughly honest Israeli journeyman Dudi Sela, winning 63 62 62 in just one hour 50 minutes to make Clement “a happy captain”. He particularly enjoyed watching his No. 2 play without inhibition, which isn’t always the case.
With the excellent Israeli doubles team of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram disrupted by an injury to the latter, France are now favourites to wrap this tie up inside two days.
The last time Tsonga stepped onto a competition court nine days ago he faced arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, whom he proceeded to take to five sets in one of the most memorable matches of the Australian Open.
Weintraub is not quite of Roger Federer’s ilk, but he does possess that competitive Israeli spirit, not to mention a habit of raising his game whenever he plays Davis Cup, which the 26-year-old did once more even though he had never before met a top 10 player. Tsonga may have been a little disingenuous by suggesting that he was never in trouble.
“No, I played well, I was not really in difficulty,” he said, “but, anyway, he played good tennis at this moment and it’s good for him. I was at the same place as him before. I know when you play against a better player you always play your best tennis because you don’t have choice.”
From the very start, Weintraub showed that he was not about to go quietly and with a ferocious one-handed backhand like his why should he? Tsonga felt the speed of the court accentuated it somewhat. Weintraub used it to good effect to stave off a break point in his opening service game and it gave him the confidence to continue carrying the fight to Tsonga even though clearly second best for those first two sets.
At two sets to love down, he might have been forgiven for accepting the inevitable, but in the third game of the third set he broke Tsonga for the first time with his first break point of the match, thanks to a pair of double faults from the Frenchman.
And then in the seventh game he had the temerity to do it again, when that withering backhand once more once dealt dismissively with a Tsonga serve. Tsonga broke straight back and then held to love, but it was not enough to deny Weintraub a cherished memory of taking a set off the world No. 8. Tsonga thought that playing someone so lowly ranked presented special difficulties.
“He’s not always playing the right shot. For us [leading players] it’s a bit strange because you play the ball somewhere and you think the ball will come back in a certain part of the court and it comes back in another part, so it’s never easy to play against a guy like this.”
Weintraub traded blow-for-blow with the illustrious Frenchman throughout the fourth set until he missed an easy overhead to hand his opponent match point on the Israeli’s serve. For once his trusty backhand - which had earned him16 points to Tsonga’s five with the same stroke - betrayed him as played a lame one into the net. Naturally, he was disappointed with the way he finished the match.
“I don’t know if I could have won – probably not – but I would have liked to have taken it to a fifth set,” he said. “I had a good chance to make it 6-all. I took a set from the No. 8 in the world, it’s a big thing for me and I was very close in the fourth set. He’s a great, great, great player.”
It may be some consolation for him to hear that Clement expects him to finish the year in the top hundred.
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Dudi Sela (ISR) - 01/02/2013
Captain Arnault Clement (FRA) - 01/02/2013
Richard Gasquet (FRA) - 01/02/2013
Captain Eyal Ran (ISR) - 01/02/2013
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) - 01/02/2013
Amir Weintraub (ISR) - 01/02/2013