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24 April 2012

France live to fight another day


NEWS ARTICLE

Photo: Virginie BouyerPauline Parmentier (FRA) and Nicolas Escude (FRA)

BESANCON, FRANCE: So France live to fight another day in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II. Of course, it’s not where they want to be but it’s infinitely preferable to life in the Zone Groups for the two-time former champions.

Whether or not they get back to where they believe they should be depends on whether they can improve the quality of their team because, for sure, a 5-0 win over a Slovenian side shorn of the services of their No. 1 gave a false impression of where French women’s tennis stands at the moment.

More than once in a pre-match interview with FedCup.com, Nicolas Escude, the captain, stressed it was a “very difficult” period in the history of the French women’s game. Obviously, the team is a far cry from the all-conquering ones of 1997 and 2003 when people like Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo, respectively, were at the height of their powers.

They say in football that league tables never lie, but World Group II is not a wholly accurate reflection of where French women’s tennis is currently at, simply because it possesses currently the seventh best player in the world in Marion Bartoli, who doesn’t play for them.

This is due to issues over her father’s position in France’s Fed Cup set-up. Bartoli wants him by her side coaching her during Fed Cup matches otherwise she says she cannot give of her best. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) insists that this would undermine the captain’s authority and say that she must practice with the other players, although they are happy for her to receive additional coaching from her father after normal training.

She last played for France in the 2004 Final in a doubles match against Russia. Given her excellent record on grass she would have been one of the favourites to win the gold medal at this year’s London Olympics but she won’t be able to compete because she has not played any Fed Cup matches in the two years leading up to the Games.

The door, however, remains open for her return to Fed Cup and resolving this problem will almost certainly be one the priorities of the new Fed Cup captain whoever he may be. This was Escude’s last match in charge after a four-year stint and he has not declared his interest yet in a new two-year contract.

The fact that France’s fortunes have faded in recent years should not be seen as a reflection on his ability and he certainly seems to enjoy a close understanding with his players. At 36, the former Davis Cup hero is young enough to be able to relate to the players and from his body language alone it’s obvious that he provides a great input, which the players seem to appreciate.

Whatever Escude decides, the FFT will cast its net far and wide, as it will also look for a new Davis Cup captain in success to Guy Forget, and both appointments are expected to be made before the French Open so there is not long. And it will be two captains rather than one.

In prospect this was a tricky tie for Escude – the consequences of defeat didn’t bear thinking about. But the moment Polona Hercog, the Slovenian No. 1, pulled out on the morning of the first day with a shoulder injury it became a lot easier mentally if not necessarily physically.

Hercog’s replacement, 32-year-old Petra Rampre, gave the definitive underdog’s performance, which was fully appreciated by the crowd at the Palais des Sports in Besancon who at the end of tie held up five large letters, spelling out the name of “PETRA”. Whereupon the Slovenian, who suffers from Alopecia universalis, a rapid and complete loss of hair, went off and grabbed her camera to take a picture of it.

Rampre could quite easily have won both her singles rubbers. On day one she was a set and a break up against Virginie Razzano, who almost quite literally crawled across the finishing line after suffering severe cramp when within two points of victory. And on day two she had two match points against the France No. 1, Pauline Parmentier, who was only rescued by her greater experience of closing out matches in top-flight tennis.

“That is why the Fed Cup is so beautiful, you never know what’s going to happen on the court,” said Escude, spoken like a true Frenchman and a true devotee of the greatest team event in women’s tennis.

Captain Nicolas Escude (FRA) - 22/04/2012

Captain Maja Matevzic (SLO) - 22/04/2012

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