Classic tie: Sweden 2-3 France, 1996

from Davis

(23.02.2012) The scene was set at the end of the 1996 season for Stefan Edberg to bow out of the game in front of a home crowd in the Davis Cup Final in Malmo. The six-time Grand Slam champion had announced the decision to retire at the start of the year and everything had aligned perfectly, Edberg seemingly destined to crown a fine career with one last triumph.

Standing in the way was a French team that had performed heroics in the semifinals against Italy to overcome a surprise 2-0 deficit from the opening day. They entered the tie as underdogs but boasted a dangerous team comprising of Arnaud Boetsch, Cedric Pioline, Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux who didn’t turn up simply to play out Edberg’s dream.

A thrilling weekend’s play climaxed on a wild Sunday on which over nine hours of tennis was required to determine a victor in the first ever Davis Cup Final decided in the fifth set of the fifth match.

The dream turns to nightmare

The opening rubber of the final drew Edberg, in his favoured position having a definite start time, against Pioline. The Swede had won four straight matches against his opponent including a meeting in Rome earlier that year in straight sets.

With the match barely under way any thoughts of a hero’s farewell came tumbling down. A twisted right ankle meant Edberg could function at nowhere near his peak and Pioline capitalised to record a straightforward 63 64 63 victory and edge France ahead.

“I took a wrong step. It might be my last match. It’s not a bad injury, but it’s swollen,” remarked the Swedish No. 1 after coming off court. He was scheduled to hit after Saturday’s doubles and again Sunday morning to determine whether he could take to the court for one last hurrah but it was very much a race against time.

The King is dead. Long live the King

Thomas Enqvist was playing in only his fifth Davis Cup tie for Sweden having begun to show why he was touted as the man to walk in the footsteps of Bjorn Borg and Edberg by winning back-to-back titles in Paris and Stockholm the previous month.

Charged with keeping Swedish hopes alive against experienced campaigner Arnaud Boetsch, the 22-year old showed few signs of nerves in front of the capacity crowd sealing a 64 63 76(2) success to level the tie.

The doubles swung the momentum back in France’s favour as Forget, who was something of a doubles specialist for his nation, and Raoux saw off Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti in four sets 63 16 63 63.

Final day drama
The drama really unfolded on the final day of the competition as the winners from the first round of singles returned to face each other, Pioline looking to wrap up the tie for the visitors. He looked set to do just that flying out to a two set lead when taking a tight second set 10-8 in the tiebreaker.

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.”

Down to the wire

Edberg’s injury proved to be severe enough to keep him out of the deciding rubber leaving the unlikely figure of Kulti, ranked 32 places lower than Boetsch, as 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."

A final goodbye

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."

The tie was not only one of the most fiercely contested Finals in the history of the competition but was also a watershed moment in the careers of many. Not only did Edberg retire immediately following the tie but Forget was to play on the tour for just a few months in 1997, only managing one more victory in doubles, before calling time on his career.

For Enqvist and Sweden it was the beginning of a period of Davis Cup dominance reminiscent of the 1980s. The Swedes went on to lift the trophy for the sixth and seventh times in the following two years with wins over USA in 1997 and Italy in 1998.

Classic tie: Sweden 2-3 France, 1996