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Bob Larson's interesting post Davis Cup analysis

Davis Cup: He's At It Again

Let no one say Guy Forget is afraid of risks.

For the second straight Davis Cup final, Forget made a last-minute change to his team. For the second straight time, he dumped Arnaud Clement. Last time, it was to bring in Cedric Pioline. Hardly an option this time, since Pioline is retired. In 2002, he went with the rookie, Paul-Henri Mathieu. And, yes, he set the kid up to play singles, #2 behind Sebastien Grosjean. That left Nicolas Escude and Fabrice Santoro in doubles.

It was a fascinating move. (Though Forget may not have had much choice; it was given out that Clement had tendonitis in his wrist.) Mathieu is pretty definitely a better player (at least right now) than Clement, but he was in a new situation. With two titles this year, he had big match experience. But Davis Cup is different -- and so are five set matches, as Mathieu learned at Roland Garros.

In 2001, the last-minute substitution worked. In 2002, it proved less effective at first blush. Mathieu got the worst position in the tie: Leading off against Marat Safin. A lousy time for a kid with a big weight on his shoulders, and probably the easiest match for Safin, since it was a non-decisive contest.

Safin won 6-4 2-6 6-1 6-4 in Friday's opening match, and Russia was up 1-0.

Fortunately for the hometown team, they had Sebastien Grosjean along. He evened things up with a routine 7-6 6-3 6-0 win. And he said that he was trying to wear Kafelnikov down. A smart strategy, with Kafelnikov due to play doubles the next day.

To a degree, it worked. Kafelnikov and Safin played doubles as scheduled the next day -- and lost in five sets to Escude and Santoro. So far, it was following the 2001 script. And the tie continued to follow the script, as Kafelnikov -- like Patrick Rafter last year -- wasn't able to play reverse singles. Marat Safin leveled the tie at 2-2 with a straight-set victory over Grosjean, but then Mikhail Youzhny had to come out to play Mathieu. Neither one, be it noted, had ever played a meaningful Davis Cup match till this week, and here they were, called upon to settle the thing.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to France's Davis Cup title: Mathieu ran out of gas. (Shades of his match with Andre Agassi at Roland Garros.) After winning the first two sets, he couldn't handle it in the last three. Youzhny won the match, and the title for Russia, 2-6 2-6 6-3 7-5 6-4.

We hate to think how Mathieu feels after losing both his matches....

But Youzhny is doubtless a new national hero, having brought Russia its first-ever Davis Cup. And Yevgeny Kafelnikov can retire in peace. If he wants to. (More on this later, once we are absolutely sure he means it.)
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