French, Russians vie for Cup supremacy

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Reigning champion France and two-time runner-up Russia will battle for the Davis Cup title in Paris this weekend, as the prestigious event will officially cap the 2002 men's tennis season.

It's difficult to say who has the better team heading into the final, as the scrappy French haven't dropped a tie since 2000, while the powerful Russians boast world No. 3 Marat Safin and former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov (who quietly has slipped to No. 27 in the ATP rankings).

The defending champs from France feature world No. 17 Sebastien Grosjean and former Australian Open runner-up Arnaud Clement, as well as crafty veteran Fabrice Santoro and the up-and-down Nicolas Escude. The Russian team includes two other members (Mikhail Youzhny and Andrei Stoliarov), but I don't think that captain Tarpischev (Shamil Tarpischev) plans on using anyone other than Safin or Kafelnikov this week.

Safin and Kafelnikov likely will play both singles and doubles for Tarpischev, while brilliant French captain Guy Forget is expected to send out Grosjean and Clement in singles and Santoro alongside either Escude, Grosjean or Clement in doubles.

Forget, who played on France's Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1996, has been making all the right moves, as he continues to create an atmosphere that allows his squad to continually defy its status as underdog over the past two years.

Marat Safin
Marat Safin is expected to play both singles and doubles for Russia this week.
The surface this week is a clay court at Bercy indoor stadium, which recently hosted the Tennis Masters Paris -- captured by the mighty Safin on a carpet surface just four weeks ago.

France and Russia (part of the former Soviet Union) have met three previous times in Davis Cup play, with the French holding a 2-1 edge, dating back to 1973. The then Soviets topped France 3-2 in Moscow in '73, but since then the French are 2-0, with a 3-2 victory in Montpelier in 1980 and a 4-1 drubbing of the Soviets in Moscow in 1983.

Only the United States (31) and Australia (27) have hoisted the Davis Cup more often than France, which is seeking a 10th title in its 15th final in the 102- year-old competition. Great Britain, like the French, also has nine Cup titles to its credit.

France was the unlikely champion a year ago when it stunned the heavily- favored Aussies 3-2 on a temporary grass court in Melbourne. Australia lost despite boasting world No. 1 star Lleyton Hewitt and former world No. 1 hero Patrick Rafter, who was unable to perform in Sunday's crucial reverse singles. Escude, arguably France's best Davis Cup player in 2001, secured the grail for France by besting Rafter's replacement, rocket-serving Wayne Arthurs, in the fifth and deciding rubber at Rod Laver Arena.

The French first captured the Cup in 1927, their first of six straight championships. They would later snap a 59-year drought by grasping the chalice again in 1991, and have claimed the hardware in two of the last six and three of the last 11 years. The proud nation has been the runner-up five times, including 1999 against Australia, which means it will compete in its third Cup final in four years (1-1).

The Russians have never won the Davis Cup since joining the field (as the Soviets) in 1962, posting a pair of back-to-back runner-up finishes in Moscow in 1994 (Sweden) and 1995 (USA). The veteran Kafelnikov, who is scheduled to undergo leg surgery in Zurich next Monday, has stated that he will retire from the sport if Russia captures the event. The 28-year-old has won the Australian Open, French Open and Olympic gold during his steady, if not underachieving, career.

Kafelnikov, who needs to have a vein problem corrected in his leg, likely will return to the tour next season should Russia fail in its bid to win the Cup this week.

Sebastien Grosjean
Sebastien Grosjean has been France's best Davis Cup player this year, going 5-1, all in singles.
Kafelnikov's teammate, the 6-foot-4 Safin, is a former U.S. Open champion (2000) and was this year's Australian Open runner-up to Sweden's Thomas Johansson. If the immensely-talented Safin can catch fire this weekend...look out France!

Safin is 6-2 in Cup play this year, including 2-1 in doubles with Kafelnikov, who is a respectable 5-2 in his Davis Cup action in '02. Grosjean has been France's best player this year, going 5-1, all in singles, while his good friend Clement has played four Cup singles matches this season, going 2-2 in the process.

This marks the first Davis Cup final in Paris since 1933, a year when the hosts fell to Britain, 3-2. The French are 5-1 in Cup finals staged in the "City of Light," dating back to 1928. They won their first-ever title against the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1927.

The French reached this year's final by upending the Americans 3-2 on clay at Paris' famed Stade Roland Garros back in September, while the Russians advanced by beating Argentina by an identical 3-2 score in Moscow.

France is seeking its first back-to-back Davis Cup titles since rattling off the six straight championships from 1927-32.

This marks Russia's first Davis Cup final on the road, while France is 6-3 when hosting the final, with its last home turf win coming against the U.S. in Lyon in '91 (3-1).

This is a very tough call, but I gonna have to pick the French to prevail at home, even though the "home-court advantage" has been anything but that in recent years. Surprisingly, the visiting team has won three of the last four and six of the last eight Davis Cup titles.

Scott Riley
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