from Davis cup.com
(16.11.2006) It was, as everyone lucky enough to be present recognised, a very special occasion. An occasion to savour and relish, an historic occasion. The most astonishing finale to a Davis Cup Final in the competition’s 107-year history. France’s 1996 3-2 victory over Sweden in Malmo was all this and more…
Stefan Edberg, on his last tennis outing before retiring, was to open up Sweden’s bid for the 1996 Davis Cup opposite Cedric Pioline, the French No.1. An equally exciting match-up would follow this opening battle between Sweden’s No. 1 Thomas Enqvist and Arnaud Boetsch.
It was, said Sweden’s captain Carl-Axel Hageskog, a good draw for his team “because Stefan prefers a fixed start time.” There were many media questions directed at Edberg but the Swede insisted he felt no pressure because he was part of a team.
Yannick Noah, France’s captain, paid tribute to Edberg’s role in tennis. “We all respect Stefan very much,” he said. “We all agree he was a class player, always fair. He was a role model for a lot of people. If he had organised a party at his place we would have gone and enjoyed it with him. But he decided he wanted a party here, so we want to spoil the party.”
Before travelling to Sweden the French squad spent a week in training at the Brittany resort of Quiberon, where an exact replica of the Malmo court had been assembled by the same Swedish builders. Here they also practised Noah’s new-found interest in Zen and yoga. Nevertheless, as five-time champion, Sweden was the heavy favourite going into the tie, despite Noah and his team sparing no effort in their spoilsport attempt...
Thirty-six minutes into the first match, Sweden’s confidence was cut short when Edberg, moving into the net, stumbled and turned his right ankle. Until then he had been holding his own, but only just, against Pioline.
After the permitted three minutes of treatment he opted to resume and even manage to hold serve from love-30, but he was wincing from the effort of pushing off to serve and was tentative in his movements. Understandably, Pioline did everything to capitalise on this unexpected bonus, moving his opponent from side to side, drawing him towards the net and lobbing him. Another break of Edberg’s serve was inevitable and it duly came in the eighth game when Pioline struck a brilliant backhand pass deep into the corner. Pioline went on to serve out for the set at 6-3 but it had taken 58 minutes to complete.
With Sweden’s team doctor and physiotherapist anxiously in attendance, Edberg underwent further treatment at the changeovers but it was clear the handicap was proving a severe one. Pioline took a two-set lead after two breaks of serve in the second set. The gallant Edberg, by now limping heavily, was broken twice more in the third set and Pioline completed an unexpectedly comfortable afternoon’s work, 63 64 63, in two hours 27 minutes. Noah offered his player a muted high five, but celebrations were low-key. Everyone felt sorry for Edberg.
In contrast to the French supporters, the Swedish majority in the audience had sat in silence for most of that opening match but in the second singles they got vociferously behind their man, Thomas Enqvist, as he battled to get Sweden back on level terms against Boetsch. The Frenchman, outmatched physically, was unable to counter Enqvist’s greater power of shot.
Enqvist had closed out the circuit season in peak form, winning tournaments in Paris and Stockholm, and he went boldly for victory. Too boldly on occasion, since most of Boetsch’s points were gathered from Enqvist errors as he pressed with excessive zeal for the big winners. After 69 minutes Enqvist served out to love to win the second set 63, and when he immediately broke serve in the opening game of the third set the Swede moved his attacking strategy up another notch.
Aces alternated with double faults as Enqvist bore down, and he paid the price when Boetsch broke back, courtesy of four Swedish errors, to pull level at 4-4. That was enough to send the third set into a tiebreak, but for Boetsch it was merely delaying the end. Enqvist dominated the tiebreak, by seven points to two, just as he had dominated the matcb 64 64 76. So, at the end of the day, Sweden were level at 1-1 and happy to be in that position in view of the earlier misfortunes.
With Edberg’s further participation in doubt, victory in the doubles was of crucial importance for Sweden. In their nine previous appearances in the Davis Cup Final, Sweden had won five times. On all five occasions they were successful in the doubles. In their four losing finals they had been beaten in the doubles...
Having been comprehensively out-shouted on the opening day, Swedish supporters turned up in better voice, and more exotically garbed, for the second day’s battle – Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti against French partners Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux. There were Viking horns, faces painted in the national colours of blue and yellow and banners in abundance. But the French minority, with their klaxons, drums, whistles and pom poms, still managed to make more noise on a decidedly raucous occasion.
The first break gave France a 3-1 first-set lead, and Forget’s elegant backhand return which achieved that break had Noah and the rest of the French bench on their feet exulting. Having taken the opening set 63, Forget and Raoux were then comprehensively outplayed in the second when, from 1-1, the Swedes won five games in succession, capturing the last 14 points.
No sooner had the Swedish players finished congratulating eachother than they were on the rack again. France surged 5-0 up in the third set, conceding only five points in those five games. Sweden managed to apply the brake and there was a momentary wobble for France when the stocky, bespectacled Raoux dropped serve. But they came through it, took the second set 63, and then set about Bjorkman again in the fourth set. He was broken for a third time as Sweden went behind 3-2 and when he served again, at 3-5 and trying to keep his country alive, Bjorkman found himself match point down after netting a backhand volley. It was the only invitation France needed. Forget struck another stunning backhand service return down the line and victory was theirs, by a score of 63 16 63 63.
An hour after the match, in a now-deserted arena, there was more drama as Edberg, his right leg taped to mid-calf, appeared for a fitness test. He jogged half a dozen circuits of the court, had a gentle hit for 20 minutes and then left with a smile but no comment.
On Sunday morning there was a further workout for Edberg, after which it was decided at a Swedish team meeting that his place in the final singles would be taken by Kulti. So Enqvist went on court for the first of the reverse singles not only well aware that he needed a victory over Cedric Pioline to keep Sweden’s hopes alive but that, if he proved successful, his nation’s hopes would then depend on an inexperienced substitute...
For day three, Swedish support was as its noisiest level yet and the arena was awash with flags. For a change, the French fans were outshouted. Enqvist’s attempts to dominate Pioline with naked power, as he had done against Boetsch, were frustrated by Pioline’s topspin style. It was difficult, in fact, for Enqvist to do much at all. He lost the first set in 31 minutes, with Pioline conceding a mere four points in five service games. With the Swede still prone to error and uncertainty, Pioline continued to prosper as the second set moved into a tiebreak. Here Enqvist had a chance when he stood at set point but after a beautifully worked rally left him with a simple forehand into an open court, he hit the top of the net instead. Later, Enqvist called it “the easiest forehand of my life”.
Enqvist fought back at the start of the third securing a break in the very first game that proved sufficient to take the set. The comeback was very much on when he raced into a 4-0 lead but Pioline proved his endurance to reel off four games of his own, only to hand a break straight back leaving Enqvist to serve it out to love.
The final set began in mirror image to the fourth, with the Frenchman shrugging off the disappointment of losing his two set lead. He stepped up to serve for the match at 5-3. At crunch time, however, it was Enqvist who secured his place in Swedish hearts breaking Pioline’s spirit and polishing off his amazing fight back to level the tie once again with a 36 67(8) 64 64 97 triumph in 4 hours 26 minutes.
“I think it was the longest match in my career and one of the most important and most emotional I’ve ever played,” Enqvist remarked. “I played well and I fought hard. To come back two sets to love and win is a nice feeling.”
At this point Kulti, ranked 32 places lower than Boetsch, was the man on whom rested the hopes of the 5,600-strong crowd in Malmo.
Kulti used his doubles expertise to effect in a serve-and-volley style trying to exploit angles on the court as Boetsch boldly went in search of winners. It appeared to be going with form when Boetsch took the first set on a tiebreaker but then seemed to lose his way as he fell 62 64 in the next two.
A tiebreak was needed to separate the two again in the fourth and once more Boetsch prevailed to force the tie to its fullest extent. Each man looked impenetrable on serve in the decider until Kulti earned three championship points to seal a Swedish victory on the Boetsch serve at 6-7. The Frenchman refused to bow to the pressure of the moment with a series of impressive serves to save them and once more level the scores.
Kulti was physically struggling at the next change of ends and despite the best efforts of his captain-turned-masseuse, Carl-Axel Hageskog, faltered on his next service game to leave Boetsch to serve it out 76(2) 26 46 76(5) 108 in just shy of five hours, falling to his knees as he clinched the Davis Cup for France for the first time since 1991.
"It's just unbelievable! It was my dream to win as a player," exclaimed the French hero. "Five years ago I was on the team, but I didn't play. I was supporting my friends and trying to do my best for them. This time I was playing and I was on the court. It was a big honour for me to be there. To win this match like that after facing three match points... it's like a dream for me. It's magic.”
After the tie was completed and France awarded the Davis Cup there was just time remaining on a marathon day for Edberg to say his farewell. In a ceremony on the court he was presented with the Swedish Tennis Asociation’s highest award and signed off on a superb career.
"It was a wonderful day for tennis, and I was lucky to be here today, because this was one of the most exciting Davis Cup matches I've ever been to. I feel privileged."