This is a story about why it was so uplifting to witness Belgium and France advancing to the final of Davis Cup this past weekend. These two countries triumphed deservedly over Australia and Serbia respectively in the semifinals, building strong team alliances, bonding as individuals who put personal ambitions beneath their team aspirations to find victory on a larger level. A pair of outstanding individuals were instrumental in leading their countries to victory in the penultimate round, including a 5'11", 150 pound fellow from Belgium with a heart that gives him the stature and presence of a man much taller and more physically imposing. His name is David Goffin. Meanwhile, France had a top of the line competitor who has been beset by too many injuries yet invariably plays hard and steadfastly for his country. He is formidable with a burly physique, standing 6'2", weighing 200 pounds, demonstrating that he is an athlete through and through. I am referring, of course, to the one and only Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Both Goffin and Tsonga have celebrated extraordinary careers. The Frenchman is 32 and remains eager and very determined. The Belgian is only 26, but his resilience as a competitor has grown steadily across the last couple of years. Prior to 2016, he seemed to lack self awareness about himself and the ceiling of his talent, but Goffin has come to know precisely what he can do and how much he can accomplish if he steps into the arena and gives the game all that he has to offer. Tsonga and Goffin threw themselves wholeheartedly into their work on behalf of their nations from September 15-17, and they were ultimately richly rewarded as they played crucial leadership roles on their teams, stepping forward when it counted, establishing themselves as indispensable figures when their countries needed them most.
Let's start with Goffin, who had the unenviable task of taking the court in Brussels for an appointment against Nick Kyrgios with Australia ahead of Belgium 2-1 in the team series. Goffin simply had to win that match, or his nation would have been eliminated in the semifinals by the men from "Down Under". As if that fact was not daunting enough for the Belgian, Goffin knew full well that Kyrgios held a 3-0 career head to head record over him. Adding to his psychological woes was this piece of inescapable truth: only once in those three matches had he broken the Australian's much vaunted serve. These were not exactly ideal circumstances for Goffin to approach his contest with Kyrgios when so much was riding on the outcome.
The tennis displayed in this match on both sides of the net was of the highest caliber as they dueled on red clay. They fought ferociously for the first set, with Kyrgios always looking like the slightly better player while Goffin pushed himself to the hilt in pursuit of gaining a lead and building a belief on a serious chance for victory. Kyrgios was returning exceptionally well at the outset, and Goffin was exceedingly hard pressed to fend off a disciplined and aggressive adversary who was returning sharply, forcefully and unrelentingly. Goffin had to work his way out of dark corners over and over again, but he was not found wanting.
Down 0-40 in the opening game, Goffin released three aces on his way to holding on for 1-0, including an untouchable delivery down the T on game point. After Kyrgios held easily for 1-1, Goffin was under siege again in the third game, which went to deuce six times. The Belgian erased three more break points against him, reaching 2-1 with another timely ace. After Kyrgios moved from 0-30 and went to 2-2 following one deuce, only one point was lost by the server during the next four games. The level of play was soaring through this stretch. At 4-4, Goffin was pressed persistently again by a highly charged Kyrgios, but the Belgian survived that three deuce game unscathed.
The two combatants protected their serves sedulously across the next three games to set up a tie-break. Kyrgios prevailed seven points to four in that sequence, taking four of those points with aces—including two scorchers on his second delivery. That was a striking demonstration of how to play under pressure. Kyrgios exploited his primary weapon spectacularly and fearlessly. From 4-4, he did not concede another point, The 22-year-old was unshakable under pressure. Goffin did not lose that set; quite clearly, Kyrgios won it.
But Goffin was undismayed by that setback. He had every reason to be discouraged, but refused to drop his level of enthusiasm and effort. In the first game of the second set, Kyrgios let his guard down, ever so slightly yet not insignificantly. At 30-30, the Australian double faulted, his first such transgression of the match. Goffin took the next point by making an impressive backhand crosscourt return, drawing an error from Kyrgios. Just like that, Goffin had reshaped the match at a critical juncture. He served two aces in a love game to reach 2-0. Kyrgios managed to hold from 0-30 in the third game but Goffin got to 3-1 without losing a point on his serve once more. Kyrgios remained in a serious fighting mode, holding his own serve the rest of the set. But Goffin was unstoppable on his own delivery, which was absolutely precise and always hard to read. Goffin held at love for 4-2 and replicated that feat as he moved to 5-3. Serving for the set at 5-4, he lost the first point but swept four in a row to close it out, serving an ace down the T at 40-15.
Goffin had won 20 of 21 points on serve in that turnaround second set, not through poor returning from Kyrgios but because he connected with 86% of his first serves and placed it immaculately. The third set stayed on serve until 2-2, but Goffin made his move in the fifth game. More and more by this stage of the encounter, he was driving his two-hander down the line with considerable disguise for outright winners. That was how he broke Kyrgios for 3-2 in the third set. As was the case in the second set, Goffin implacably controlled matters on his own delivery. He conceded only five points in five service games over the course of the third set. Serving at 5-4, he held at 15 with another ace down the T. Set to Goffin, 6-4.
Those who have observed Goffin over the last bunch of years are well aware that he tends to conceal his emotions whenever he competes. But on this big occasion, he emoted appealingly and more regularly than usual. Allowing that freedom of expression did him no harm whatsoever. The more he urged himself on in his own quiet yet unmistakable manner, the greater the benefits were for the Belgian. Kyrgios, meanwhile, was not willing to slack off in any way. The fourth set stayed on serve until 3-3. At 15-30 in the seventh game, Kyrgios double faulted. On the following point, he approached the net but Goffin stymied him with a low backhand passing shot down the line, eliciting an error on a low forehand volley from the Australian.
And so Goffin was precisely where he wanted to be, ahead two sets to one, up a break in the fourth, two holds from an enormously satisfying triumph. But he tightened up when serving at 4-3, 40-30, missing a routine forehand, sending that shot tamely into the net. Kyrgios pounced, lacing a forehand winner behind the Belgian and then sending a two-hander crosscourt with interest, forcing Goffin into an outstretched error. It was 4-4. Kyrgios was back in business.
But the emotional lift he got from breaking back did not last for long. At 15-15 in the ninth game, Goffin hit a forehand return winner down the line, followed by a winning backhand crosscourt return. Down 15-40, Kyrgios attempted another audacious second serve ace down the T, but missed it long. That double fault infuriated Kyrgios, who smashed his racket on the court. Now Goffin was serving for the match at 5-4. A service winner took the Belgian to 15-0. An errant return from Kyrgios gave Goffin a 30-0 lead. Composed and confident, unwavering and inspired, Goffin unleashed two aces from there to hold at love. His 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory—his first in four confrontations with Kyrgios—was impeccably crafted. Belgium was back to 2-2 in the best of five match showdown between nations. For the 15th time in 16 career Davis Cup singles appearances, Goffin was victorious.
Goffin's teammate Steve Darcis sealed a 3-2 victory for Belgium by outperforming Jordan Thompson 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. It had been Goffin who put Belgium ahead 1-0 on the first day with a come from behind four set triumph over John Millman, but Kyrgios got Australia back on even terms with a five-set win over Darcis. The Australians captured the doubles contest as John Peers and Thompson ousted Ruben Bemelmans and Arthur De Greef 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. That left it all up to Goffin on the last day, and his magnificent win over Kyrgios set the stage for Darcis to wrap up the semifinal win for Belgium. That was an honorable effort for Darcis, but the fact remains that Goffin won his singles on opening day and kept his country alive on the last afternoon. He was the chief architect of the Belgian victory in Brussels.
Tsonga played that same role for France. As France faced Serbia in Lille, France, Lucas Pouille was toppled by Dusan Lajovic in four sets. Tsonga took France to 1-1 without losing a set in his singles duel with Lasio Djere and then the French tandem of Pierre Hugues-Herbert and Nicolas Mahut defeated Filip Krajinovic and Nenad Zimonjic in straight sets. That meant that Tsonga could seal the win for France with a victory the final day over the in-form Lajovic, and he did just that.
It wasn't easy, however. Tsonga was decidedly outplayed in the first set by Lajovic, who connected time and again with unanswerable forehands. He was looking to impose himself regularly on the clay, but Lajovic seemed to have time in abundance as he set up his shots from the baseline. His returns were terrific as well. The Serbian took the first set 6-2. Tsonga realized that he had a tough task ahead.
He got right on with it. The charismatic Frenchman broke for a 2-0 lead in the second set. A forehand passing shot winner driven down the line gave Tsonga break point, and then Lajovic double faulted. Tsonga served more purposefully in the second set. He rolled to 5-2 and broke again in the eighth game on a missed forehand approach from Lajovic. The set belonged to Tsonga, 6-2. At 4-4 in the pivotal third set, Tsonga faced a couple of break points, but erased them with an unstoppable first serve and a forehand inside in winner. He advanced to 5-4. Both players held comfortably to set up a tie-break.
Tsonga commenced that sequence convincingly, putting away a high forehand volley for 1-0, winning a hotly contested 21 shot exchange to get the mini-break for 2-0. After Lajovic took the next point, Tsonga's service winner and ace out wide made it 4-1 for the Frenchman. Neither player lost a point on serve the rest of the way in the tie-break. At 6-5, Tsonga's service winner to the backhand drew a netted backhand return. He sealed the set 7-6, taking the tie-break 7-5.
The fourth set unfolded predictably. Tsonga broke in the opening game, held at love for 2-0 and demonstrated what an estimable front runner he can be. He broke again for 4-1 with another scintillating forehand inside in winner. Serving for the match at 5-2, he held with authority, closing out the win 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-2. France was victorious over Serbia 3-1 as the fifth match was cancelled.
France will be the host for the final against Belgium the weekend of November 24-26. Once again, the two central performers figure to be the beguiling Tsonga and the deceptively gifted Goffin. They were the players that made the difference in the penultimate round. And the view here is that the outcome of the Davis Cup Final will be determined by how successfully Tsonga and Goffin deal with that historic occasion. I expect both men to be fully prepared, utterly primed and as eager as they have ever been to achieve something substantial as the curtain closes on 2017.