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Monday, February 11, 2008
Beware France


I have just five words for the U.S. Davis Cup squad now that the first-round of the competition is over: "Well done and … beware France."

Andy Roddick and his crew, the defending Davis Cup champs, survived the ugly weekend on ugly clay in Austria, but they have a revitalized French team to face in the second round. The good news is that the U.S. will be playing at home, presumably on a surface comparable in speed to ice; the bad news is that the volatile, gifted French team can skate with the best of them. This will be an interesting matchup of temperamentally comparable squads in which surface and home-field advantage will mean relatively little.

Last week, the French and U.S. squads played away ties against a similar degree of competition (the French were at Romania) and performed to a comparable standard. The only loss for either team in a total of 10 matches was U.S. doubles specialist Mike Bryan's capitulation to Stefan Koubek in a dead rubber; Bryan pulled a hamstring and retired early in the second set. And please note: the French have a blue-chip doubles team (Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra) that can hold its own with Bob and Mike Bryan, which takes a gimme off the U.S. side of the board right from the outset.

In recent years, France and the U.S. have both been Davis Cup contenders (the French last won in 2001) but never dominant teams. The U.S. has been too much of a fast-court squad with a great doubles team, but a questionable No. 2 singles player. The French have had too much French flair for their own good, and too often got sidetracked playing pretty instead of commanding tennis.

But just as this is a different U.S. team (Roddick has proved himself a true money player, and James Blake seems to have gotten over the hump), this weekend demonstrated that France is a different club, too.

France now has something it has always lacked: a big dog. That would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has a power game, competitive focus and an implacable attitude. He plays pretty tennis all right, but it's the kind that leaves a mark. This weekend, he made a noteworthy Davis Cup debut, taking out Andrei Pavel, the top Romanian player, in a fitting manner. He overcame typical Davis Cup debut jitters and lost the first set, but once he settled in he just rolled, winning the next three sets at 6-4 each. It was tantamount to declaring: Anybody who thinks my run to the Australian Open final was a fluke had better think again.

Until now, you could always count on one or another of the French players losing it in Turn 3 on any given race and spinning off the track. Richard Gasquet, the French No. 1, is so mercurial he ought to be called "Crash." But Tsonga is bound to be a stabilizing force. As French captain Guy Forget said on Sunday, "Jo has lived up to the occasion. He displayed some dominating tennis, while remaining serene and in control."

A France squad that features anyone serene and in control is a team to be feared.