Commentary

Viable options for French team, but who's it going to be?

The French Davis Cup team will confidently stroll into Winston-Salem, N.C., this week with a talent-laden squad. But unlike the American unit -- a team set in stone  the French have a problem, and it's anyone's guess as to how the pieces will eventually fit together.

Originally Published: April 8, 2008
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Michael Llodra and Araud ClementAP Photo/Martin MeissnerArnaud Clement, front, and Michael Llodra are a formidable team, but will they be playing?
French Davis Cup captain Guy Forget has a dilemma, although as dilemmas go, it's a good one to have.

Unlike the defending champion U.S. team, whose lineup is locked in, Forget has viable options and has chosen to exercise them -- or at least reserved the right to be indecisive. Forget named a pool of five players for this weekend's quarterfinal clash with the U.S. in Winston-Salem, N.C., and probably won't make a final cut to the obligatory four until the last minute.

"All five of these guys really deserve to go," Forget said, looking sincerely pained when he spoke with reporters at the Sony Ericsson Open. "Nothing is assured. I'm hoping for some really tough competition."

The preliminary French roster featured three men in the top 20 -- No. 10 Richard Gasquet, No. 12 Paul-Henri Mathieu and No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and one of the most successful Davis Cup doubles teams in recent years, Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra. Clement is technically the extra player, but the picture is somewhat murky, especially after Tsonga's withdrawal on Wednesday from competition because of a knee injury.

Both Gasquet and Tsonga made early exits (second and third round, respectively) in Miami, but their seasons so far have had a very different feel. Gasquet hasn't made it past the round of 16 in any tournament this year. Tsonga exploded on the scene after several injury-hampered seasons by charging to the Australian Open finals but hasn't made a lot of noise since.

Tsonga is far less experienced in big matches and made his Davis Cup debut just two months ago, winning a match against Romania's Andrei Pavel. He has never played a five-set match -- although it may have seemed that way when he and Andy Roddick battled through a marathon first-set tiebreak at the Australian Open last year. Tsonga won that set 20-18, but Roddick went on to win.

Despite Gasquet's lethal backhand and his early success on the ATP tour, his stamina is a perpetual question, and he's been bothered by blisters on his right hand recently. Gasquet skipped at least one day of practice in Key Biscayne, where Forget kept the players together for training sessions after they were eliminated from the Sony Ericsson.

Forget wouldn't say whether one player's chances were better than another's, but he heaped praise on Mathieu, who reached the fourth round in Miami before falling to finalist Rafael Nadal.

"He has a game that's very solid no matter who he's playing," Forget said of the 26-year-old Mathieu. "His results have been more consistent, while Richard and Jo's have been more up-and-down, probably because [Mathieu] is older and more experienced."

All the singles players will have had a good, long rest before play begins next Friday, but "I'd rather have guys who come in with a lot of confidence and a lot of matches," Forget said.

[+] EnlargeRichard Gasquet
AP Photo/Vadim GhirdaHis talent is undeniable but Richard Gasquet is just 5-4 in his Davis Cup career.
Mathieu said he understands Forget's mix-and-match thought process, but hopes he isn't devoting a week to Davis Cup practice only to find himself on the bench. "He said to prepare yourself to play, so I'm taking it the same way as if there had only been four players selected," he said.

One factor that may work against the French team is road fatigue after being in the United States for several weeks. The Davis Cup not only extends the stay, but shortens clay-court preparation for players who haven't performed particularly well on the surface in recent years, even though their home Grand Slam event is played on it.

Doubles also presents an interesting choice for the French. The assumption before Forget made his announcement was that Clement and Llodra, who are 5-1 in their past five Davis Cup matches and beat U.S. standard-bearers Bob and Mike Bryan in the Wimbledon finals last year, were no-brainers to play on Saturday.

The only absolutes are that Mathieu wouldn't be asked to play doubles and Clement -- a former top-20 singles player who has fared poorly in singles this season -- would play only doubles. "I think our strength in doubles is that no matter which pair plays, they're able to compete with the Bryans," Forget said.

Bob and Mike Bryan are confident that they'll face Clement and Llodra in the end, and Roddick isn't buying the notion that there's any uncertainty. "They're trying to say Mathieu is on the team, but Clement is on the rooming list," he said last week. Roddick would love another shot at Gasquet, who played a near-perfect match against him at Wimbledon last year to eliminate him in the quarterfinals.

Forget insisted that he's not trying to hoodwink anyone. "I can't imagine going into this [practice week] with just four players," he said. "The Americans are so strong and they have so much confidence that if we want to make them worry a little bit, we have to play at a very high level."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

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Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.