- 02 Dec 2020
What happened exactly on that day: Escudé’s moment of glory
On this day, December 2, 2001, Nicolas Escudé, world No 27, defeated Wayne Arthurs, from Australia (7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3) to give France the Davis Cup title. Escudé, who had lost in the first round of the last four tournaments he had attended, had also managed to beat world No 1, Lleyton Hewitt, on the opening day (4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4). The Frenchman completed the entire Davis Cup campaign without losing a single match in three ties.
Nicolas Escudé, the Frenchman at ease on grass
Nicolas Escudé, from France, was born in 1976. At the age of 17, as one of the best French juniors, he received a wild card to participate in the Roland-Garros main draw. Unfortunately, he faced world No 4 Boris Becker and was heavily defeated on the Philippe-Chatrier Court (6-0, 6-3, 6-0). This loss broke his confidence for a while, and he only made himself known to the general public in January 1998, when he reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open, ranked only 81 in the world. In Melbourne, on his way to the final four, he became the first player of the Open Era to win three matches in the same tournament after losing the first two sets. He was eventually defeated by Marcelo Rios (6-1, 6-3, 6-2).
Injured in early 1999, he struggled in the first half of the season and his ranking dropped down to No 160. But at the US Open, he became the first qualifier to make his way into the quarter-finals, beating two top 10 players on his way (Carlos Moya and Rios) before losing to Andre Agassi (7-6, 6-3, 6-4). In 2000, he obtained his career-high ranking as world No 17. His very aggressive game was particularly dangerous on fast surfaces, and in 2001, he claimed the second and most important title of his career in Rotterdam (defeating Roger Federer in the final, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6) before reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon (lost to Agassi, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2). Although his indoor season proved to be catastrophic, he finished the year in the top 30 for the first time.
Wayne Arthurs, the lefty with a thunderous serve
Wayne Arthurs, born in 1971, was the son of a former Irish Davis Cup player, who later moved to Australia. Left-handed, Arthurs relied mostly on one of the deadliest serves of his time. In his first years on the tour, he had the best results in doubles, but in singles, his career took off only in 1999, when he made his way out of the qualifications unto the fourth round at Wimbledon. Before losing to Agassi (6-7, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4), the lefty had held his serve for 111 consecutive games! The same year, he upset world No 2, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in a Davis Cup tie held on grass (6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0). He managed to reach the fourth round in two other Grand Slam tournaments: the US Open in 2000 (defeated by Thomas Johansson, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4) and the French Open 2001 (lost to Roger Federer, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2).
The place: The Rod Laver Arena
The 2001 Davis Cup final was held at the Rod Laver Arena, in Melbourne. Originally named Center Court, it was unveiled in 1988 when the Australian Open left Kooyong for Melbourne Park, and it was renamed in 2000 in honour of the legendary Australian lefty who had achieved the Grand Slam twice, in 1962 and 1969. The Rod Laver Arena could host 15,000 spectators, and, outside of the Open, it often hosted concerts. The Australian team had decided to host the tie against France on grass, and a temporary grass-court had been laid for the occasion.
The facts: How France exacted revenge on Australia
The final of the 2001 Davis Cup was a remake of the 1999 final between France and Australia. In 1999, the tie was hosted in France, on clay, and Australia had prevailed, thanks mainly to a roaring Mark Phillippoussis. This time, the final was held in Melbourne Park, and the Aussies chose to play on grass court, to accommodate their players : Patrick Rafter had finished runner-up at Wimbledon the past two years running, and his younger teammate Lleyton Hewitt, aged 20 and world No 1, had already claimed three titles on this surface.
In these conditions, with the Australian heat on top of that, the French team didn’t land in Melbourne as the favourite, but its players were not to be underestimated: Sébastien Grosjean was world No 4 and had just finished runner-up at the Masters Cup, and Nicolas Escudé had reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, where he was the only player in 2001 to defeat Hewitt on grass.
The two men had already played five sets at the All England Club. In the opening match, Escudé and Hewitt put up another tough fight, but in the end, the Frenchman prevailed (4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4), scoring a seventh consecutive win in the competition. In the second match, Rafter leveled the tie, outplaying Grosjean in straight sets (6-3, 7-6, 7-5). Back in the locker room, he had bad news for his captain, John Fitzgerald his shoulder tendinitis was getting worse and he wasn’t able to play another singles match in a best-of-five format. The Australian captain then made a daring choice : he chose Rafter and Hewitt to play the doubles on Saturday, instead of the Woodies (Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, one of the best doubles teams in tennis history). Unfortunately for him, Cédric Pioline and Fabrice Santoro prevailed (2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1).
On Sunday, Hewitt leveled the tie, easily defeating Grosjean (6-3, 6-2, 6-3). A deciding fifth match was to be played, and, although the French captain Guy Forget had expressed the opinion that “even at 80%, Rafter was still better than Arthurs at 100%”, it was the 30-year old lefty who appeared on the Rod Laver Arena to face Escudé. During two sets, Arthurs managed to keep up with the Frenchman, thanks mostly to his deadly serve. After Escudé won the first set (7-6), the Aussie took the second on the same score, before collapsing in the next sets. Escudé sealed a perfect Davis Cup campaign with a last backhand passing shot on the match point (7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3). The Frenchman had just given his country its ninth Davis Cup title.
What next: The end for Rafter, no back-to-back for France
The 2001 Davis Cup final proved to be Patrick Rafter’s last appearance in singles on the tour.
The next year, the French team would reach the Davis Cup final again, but Marat Safin’s Russia would prevail, 3-2. France would then remain sixteen years without a title, until 2017, after Yannick Noah was called back to lead the team.
As for Escudé, this final would remain the peak of his career. In 2004, after claiming a fourth title on the tour in Doha, he would retire from professional tennis at the age of 28, due to shoulder injury.
Wayne Arthurs would claim his only title on the tour in 2005, in Scottsdale. He would retire in 2007.