Showdown at Roland Garros

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Roland Garros will open for business again this Friday, which means it must be time for the French Open, right?

Not quite.

Roland Garros, this week, will be home to the highly-anticipated Davis Cup semifinal between the once-powerful Americans and an upstart French team that's seeking its second straight Davis Cup title and a third championship in seven years.

The U.S.-France rivalry dates all the way back to 1905.

The Americans will roll into town (Paris) captained by Patrick McEnroe and spearheaded on court by a pair of rising young stars -- Andy Roddick and James Blake. The underdog squad is rounded out by veteran Todd Martin and another youngster, Mardy Fish.

France will run out Sebastien Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick is a perfect 7-0 in his career Davis Cup matches.
Too bad for the Americans this one's not being played on U.S. soil, where the likely surface would be hardcourt and they'd be heavy favorites. But since the French are hosting -- on their beloved red clay -- they're favored to reach a second straight final and their fifth final in the last 12 years.

France is 3-1 in its last four trips to the championship round, including a shocking 3-2 victory over the host Aussies in last year's grass-court spectacle in Melbourne. Nicolas Escude was the French hero Down Under, sweeping his singles matches, including a Cup-clinching victory over hard- serving lefty Wayne Arthurs in the deciding fifth rubber.

Escude is conspicuously absent from this week's French roster...or so you would think.

Actually, Escude's worst surface is clay, which prompted captain Guy Forget to forget about him, for now.

Surprisingly, the Americans have won nine of their last 10 Davis Cup ties played on clay, dating back to 1988. Their last clay-court loss came against eventual champion Spain in the 2000 semifinals (5-0).

France has notched a respectable nine Davis Cup titles over the years, but the U.S. is the all-time leader with a gaudy 31 Cups. Unfortunately for the Americans, they've failed to hoist the 102-year-old chalice since 1995 and haven't reached the final since a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden in 1997.

The French bested the Americans in the 1991 final to begin their Davis Cup resurgence, if you will.

France will most likely feature Grosjean and Clement in singles, while "P-Mac" is expected to counter with Roddick and Blake as his soloists. The American doubles team will likely be Blake and Martin, while France could pair any number of players, with Santoro expected to be one of them.

The U.S. will have to do without its legendary stalwarts, U.S. Open finalists Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, as Agassi had already said that he would no longer play Davis Cup, while Sampras decided to take some time off after surprisingly capturing his fifth U.S. Open and 14th "major" title earlier this month.

James Blake
James Blake is a flawless 5-0 in Davis Cup play, including 3-0 in his singles encounters.
The Cup-hungry Forget was hoping that Sampras would play this week, as the Grand Slam king's career struggles on clay have been well documented. "At one stage, I almost hoped he [Sampras] would come," Forget told reporters last week. "He might have messed up and played a mediocre match."

"Sampras sometimes loses control on clay when he's not feeling confident," Forget added.

Forget is, however, relieved that Agassi, the 1999 French Open champion, decided against performing. "We know his [Agassi] ability to play on clay."

The U.S. holds a slim 7-6 advantage in its head-to-head meetings with France, but the French have won six of the last nine ties, dating back to 1927, when France captured its first-ever Davis Cup title with a victory over a Bill Tilden-led U.S. contingent in Philadelphia. That French team featured "Musketeers" Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet, and the victory ended the Americans' seven-year stranglehold on the bowl.

The French are 5-1 all-time against the U.S. in France, including a flawless 4-0 showing at Roland Garros. The teams haven't met at the home of the French Open since 1932, when France prevailed 3-2 in a controversial Davis Cup final. With the U.S. trailing France 1-2 on the final day of competition, Texan Wilmer Allison led Jean Borotra 5-4 in the fifth set when on match point, Borotra struck a second serve that landed, by most accounts, as far as four inches out. Allison whacked the ball into the stands and began to approach the net to shake Borotra's hand, but the "out" call never came. Allison, clearly distraught over the turn of events, won only one more point the rest of the match and lost 7-5 in the fifth set, giving the French an insurmountable 3-1 lead. Under orders from Davis Cup founder Dwight Davis, the American team boycotted the official dinner later that evening. "I only ever heard him cuss once," said U.S. team member John Van Ryn of Davis, who inaugurated the Davis Cup competition in 1900, "and it was then."

France hasn't hosted a Davis Cup tie at Roland Garros since its 1982 quarterfinal victory over the former Czechoslovakia. The Americans, however, went on to win the Cup in '82 by pasting the French 4-1 in the final.

The last time these two nations met, the U.S. posted a 4-1 blowout victory in a first-round affair in 1995.

The Americans are hopeful that the 20-year-old/world No. 11 Roddick will continue his torrid Cup play, which has seen the big-serving star produce a brilliant 7-0 singles mark in four career ties. The 22-year-old Blake is also perfect in Cup competition, going 5-0, including 3-0 in singles. Blake is 2-0 in doubles, securing one victory with Martin and another with Fish, who, more than likely, will not remove his USA Davis Cup jacket this weekend while he cheerleads alongside captain McEnroe.

The world No. 9 Grosjean is 8-6 in his career Davis Cup singles matches including 3-1 this year, while Clement is 5-4, including 1-1 in 2002.

The USA-France winner will face the Argentina-Russia victor in late November/early December. I expect France to pull out the win during Sunday's reverse singles in south Paris, but an American upset is not out of the question.

One thing we know for certain is that Court Chatrier will be standing room only from September 20-22.

Scott Riley
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