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French Toast
Sally Jenkins
December 09, 1991
Cooking at home, France unexpectedly burned the U.S. to win the Davis Cup for the first time since 1932
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December 09, 1991

French Toast

Cooking at home, France unexpectedly burned the U.S. to win the Davis Cup for the first time since 1932

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Frankly, the food was a problem. So were all those dancing and singing Frenchmen, besotted with their dreams and their C�tes du Rh�ne, bordelaise, Gauloise smoke and unbridled emotion. The U.S. squad was overwhelmed by the sheer Gaulness of it all. As a result, in an arena in which 8,000 sounded like 800,000, France won the Davis Cup by pulling off the biggest final-round upset in the history of the competition.

After Henri Leconte and Guy Forget combined to defeat the U.S. three matches to one, they sobbed in exultation on the court at the Palais des Sports Gerland in Lyons on Sunday afternoon. Not since 1932, when Ren� Lacoste and the rest of the famed Four Musketeers won the last of six consecutive Davis Cups for France, had the country claimed what its people affectionately call the saladier, or salad bowl. But this year was not at all comparable. First of all, this group was captained by Yannick Noah, the onetime Cameroonian who sports dreadlocks and a dangly earring and has recorded a hit reggae single in France called Saga Africa. That was what the French team members sang, rather than La Marseillaise, as they congaed around the arena after Forget had beaten Pete Sampras 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to clinch the Cup tie.

With the final shot, a Forget forehand into the open court, Noah leaped from his courtside chair with a cry. As for Forget, a bloodless, balding lefthander who delivered 17 aces, he was driven to his knees and then onto his back by an explosion of noise that he said represented "a victory of friends, and of a whole country." Players and fans alike carried on so much that the meaningless fifth match, between Leconte and Andre Agassi, was canceled.

While Forget was the hero of the moment, Leconte, with his bright flame of a tennis game, is the one who will presumably be cast in bronze at Roland Garros. Leconte shouldn't have been on a tennis court at all after having undergone his third back operation four months ago. But Leconte, who had fallen to No. 159 in the rankings, furiously rehabilitated himself in an effort to make the team. "He was dead," said Noah. "To live again, he needed a dream. I gave him a dream."

It was this type of quixotic effort that typified the French team. By contrast, the U.S. squad was characterized by overconfidence and rubelike behavior. While the French were in Montreux, Switzerland, running through forests for the two weeks before the tie, the Americans were scattered all over the globe. While Noah had the gall to choose the injured Leconte for his spirit and experience, U.S. captain Tom Gorman selected the poised but passionless Sampras, a Davis Cup neophyte.

As Noah dined in a restaurant on Saturday night, after his team had taken a 2-1 lead with a victory in that afternoon's doubles, the other patrons stood on tables to applaud him and sing to him. "I don't think the Americans realized how much the Davis Cup meant to the French team and the French people," said Forget later. "In America they have 10 different things that are more important than the Davis Cup."

The lone U.S. point was delivered by Agassi, who defeated Forget 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 on Friday. Thereafter, Agassi spent his time complaining about the food in Lyons, which only happens to be the gastronomic capital of the world. After sampling a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Paul Bocuse, France's most celebrated chef, Agassi chose to dine at McDonald's and on handfuls of candy. "It's the only thing fit to eat here," he said.

Agassi's victory was followed by Sampras's Davis Cup debut, which became a U.S. nightmare thanks to Leconte, who prevailed 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. Sampras was also undone by the spectators, who between points beat on railings, stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers and chanted in full throat, "Allez, allez, allez!"

"He can't go five, he can't go five," Agassi kept yelling to Sampras from the bench, convinced that Leconte would fold either physically or mentally in a fifth set. But Leconte was untouchable A former Top 10 player, he has combined flashes of brilliance with many a disappointing performance. His dazzling but erratic play earned him the nicknames Riton, or "little Henri," from the French public and l'Idiot from his former coach, Ion Tiriac. In the 1988 French Open finals against Mats Wilander, Leconte was nearly jeered off the court after collapsing in straight sets. Against Sampras, though, he played a gorgeous match that he called "the most complete of my life."

Sampras, who's No. 6 in the world, had been the hottest player in men's tennis for several months. Since the end of July he had put together a 36-6 match record and won three tournaments, including the ATP Tour World Championship in Frankfurt over fellow American Jim Courier and an event in this same arena in Lyons. But after Leconte had finished with him, Sampras looked like a confident young boxer who had just gotten punched for the first time—and discovered how much it could hurt. "I never had that feeling on the court," he said. "I'm just glad it's over."

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