France take the doubles to keep Croatia at bay in Davis Cup final

Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut won the doubles to keep France in the Davis Cup final. (AFP pic)

LILLE: Defending champions France fought back in the Davis Cup final with victory in the doubles on Saturday, reducing Croatia’s lead to 2-1 in Lille.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut had to scrap hard to squeeze past the Croatian pair Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig in four sets — 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/3).

Victory for the Croats would have secured their second Davis Cup title after Borna Coric and Marin Cilic won their opening singles matches on Friday to give the Croats a 2-0 lead.

Instead France will have a chance of defending the title they won against Belgium here a year ago when they go into the reverse singles on Sunday although they will have to win both matches.

“This is a wonderful present,” French captain Yannick Noah said courtside after the game.

“It’s not over, we have a chance. We are not the favourites but we are still in there.”

Noah deflected questions about whether Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would be fit enough to play in Sunday’s singles against Coric.

Tsonga, who only returned to competitive tennis in September after missing most of the season through injury, suffered a groin injury during his straight sets defeat by Cilic on Friday.

Under pressure 
The pressure was on Herbert and Mahut from the start as the noisy home crowd urged them to fight back after Friday’s defeats and there were early signs of nerves as they both struggled to hold their service.

But they settled down and broke Dodig in the seventh game, clinging on to their own to take the opening set 6-4.

The French duo, who reached the final of the ATP Finals in London last week, continued to feed off the energy generated by the crowd, breaking Dodig again to go 5-4 up in the second. Herbert closed out the set to put France 2-0 up.

In the short break that followed, the crowd took to song with a resounding rendition of the Marseilleise that shook the stadium — and the two Croats.

Pavic dropped the opening service game and it took some superb defensive play to prevent the French from breaking Dodig as well as the Croats rescued two break points.

From there, Dodig and Pavic found their strength, levelling the set at 3-3 by breaking Herbet and then putting the pressure on Mahut.

The Frenchman saved two break points but a limp backhand into the net put the Croats 5-4 up. Pavic then served out for the set to bring it back to 2-1.

The fourth set was equally tight. The French thought they had the match wrapped up when they went 40-0 up when Pavic was serving at 4-5.

But he showed nerves of steel to shut out the baying crowd — who had to be silenced by the French players and their captain Yannick Noah — and save all three match points before going on to take the game.

In the tiebreak, the French took an early break when Mahut returned a Pavic serve down the centre of the court and they duly closed it out 7-3 to give their team hope of a remarkable comeback on Sunday.