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Action Replay: 1991 Davis Cup final, pt.3

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:56

The final day began with France needing just one rubber to seal their first Davis Cup in 59 years, and revive memories of the ‘Four Musketeers’.

93-year-old Jean Borotra, who played in that victorious squad, was present in Lyon. Rene Lacoste, the leader of that famous four, was not – but only because he did not believe his heart could take it.

That’s how much victory would mean to France: the only thing stopping the game’s French patronage attending was self-preservation.

The feats of the Musketeers – Borotra, Lacoste, Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet – who won six consecutive Davis Cup titles from 1927 to 1932, loomed large in the history of French sport. But a new chapter was waiting to be written, this time by two men.

Forget produced a display of great resolve against an incessant onslaught from Sampras…

Yannick Noah’s faith in Guy Forget and Henri Leconte had raised a few eyebrows as they prepared to face two of the Tour’s most exciting prospects in Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi on day one. Leconte’s inclusion proved to be a masterstroke, as he fed off the crowd and blitzed young Sampras to level the tie.

Pairing the veterans in the doubles again raised mutterings. Yes, Forget and Leconte shared an unbeaten Davis Cup partnership, but after their singles action and with the reverse rubbers to play on the final day, was Noah asking too much – particularly of Leconte, who was returning from back surgery?

Maybe Noah knew it wouldn’t matter.

First up, Guy Forget faced Pete Sampras – both in the knowledge that a French victory ended matters. The first set was played by two men determined to wrest control of the match, inseparable for twelve games, and still deadlocked at 5-5 in the ensuing tiebreak.

Then Forget fired his first salvo at Sampras’s confidence. The American served an ace to go ahead 6-5 and bring up the first set point. Forget replied in kind, and his ace put the first crack in Sampras’ fragile spirit as the Frenchman went on to win the next two points to claim the set.

“I was a bit deflated by that,” Sampras admitted afterwards. But in contrast to his capitualtion against Leconte, this time he responded, finally producing the tennis that had lead to his selection for the tie to take the second set 6-3.

The American was in the ascendency, as the scoreboard began to look all too familiar for the French. Forget had taken the first set against Agassi in the tie’s opening rubber before running out of steam.

Now he found himself in the same scenario against the American No.1. In the stands, thoughts turned to the prospect of a decisive fifth rubber.

But Forget would not hear of it. In the third, the Frenchman produced a display of great resolve against an incessant onslaught from Sampras and found his serve backing him up admirably – never more so than at the end of the set.

At 30-40, 5-3 the Frenchman missed his first serve. The ace that followed was one of 17 he produced but, coming on a second serve, there had never been a braver one.

“There are times when you have to take risks,” he said later. It may as well have been Lacoste himself talking. For Sampras, though, it was another opportunity that simply passed him by.

He was to finish the match with a solitary break from 13 break points, and that statistic would prove to be decisive for the Americans.

“I think the first set would have set the tone of the match and the crowd, and if I could have squeaked it out Leconte would be playing Agassi right now,” Sampras conceded later. “But it wasn’t to be.”

A single break in the fourth put Forget in sight of the finish line. Sampras couldn’t respond amid the cacophony of noise. When the scoreboard flashed up 7-6 3-6 6-3 6-4, the crowd were rapturous.

Forget revelled in the moment. He threw his racket – and then himself – to the floor, to be joined in ecstatic embrace by Noah, who had leapt the net and would have set a new national high jump record had there been a bar. The rest of the French squad followed to form a joyous scrum.

Jean Borotra restricted his celebrations to applause. The remainder of the 8,000-strong crowd in the Palais des Sports hugged, danced and sang in a mass exorcism of two generations of failure.

Yannick Noah, his selection policy vindicated, lead a conga line which snaked around the court in one of many laps of honour.

Sampras walked off court disconsolate, as did the rest of the American squad. It was almost 15 minutes before Noah and Tom Gorman exchanged congratulations and commiserations. There was no lack of courtesy on either part – merely that France, the team and the nation, were celebrating.

As Gorman conceded later, the Americans underestimated both the strength of the opposition and the strength of the opposition’s desire. The French won all the crucial points at all the important moments over the weekend.

Forget was adamant. “I don’t think the American team realised how much the Davis Cup meant to the French team and the French nation,” he said.

It meant a lot. French tennis had undergone a revolution in 1968 to win the Davis Cup and the revolutionary leader, Philippe Chatrier, was in Lyon to see the fulfillment of his dream. “It was a long time coming, but it was worth it,” he said.

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