The Charge of the French Brigade

‘Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d . . .’

It occurs to me, apropos of Guy Forget’s seemingly baffling decision to play Gilles Simon in singles in this weekend’s Davis Cup final, that a tactical masterstroke is often little more than a stupid decision that comes off. Usually it doesn’t. Tactically, Forget’s ‘inspiration’ seems roughly on par with the British decision to charge the Russian artillery at Balaclava. The stakes aren’t quite as high, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to Novak Djokovic this week. I’ll be curious to see if the French Davis Cup squad fares any better than the 17th Lancers. It won’t be long until we know either way, as Gilles Simon thunders down the valley of death into the teeth of the Serbian artillery.

Davis Cup of course has a rich tradition of fabulously unlikely victories. The French also have a rich tradition of doing weird stuff. But there has to be a limit. Throwing Simon to Novak Djokovic is surely beyond the limit. It’s frankly cruel: the guy is a new father.

As far as I can make out, Forget’s decision rests on several assumptions:

  • Djokovic will probably win both of his matches;
  • If he is to lose one, it will probably be against Gael Monfils on Day 3. Simon’s role on Day 1 is to facilitate this by tiring out the Serbian No.1;
  • Michael Llodra has to be fresh for the doubles, and an extended tussle with Djokovic on Day 1 would be exhausting;
  • Llodra can always be switched in for the final singles on Day 3 (if that becomes necessary), since recovering from doubles is much easier;
  • Monfils must beat Janko Tipsarevic.

Djokovic probably wasn’t going to lose to Llodra anyway, regardless of what transpired a few weeks back on a slick court at Bercy. Given that the only guy with a snowflake’s chance of beating Djokovic is Monfils, they might as well at least make the Serbian work for his opening win. Simon is a decent technician, and can keep the ball in play for days at a stretch. His only hope of a Day 1 win will be if the Serbian is unduly nervous, in which case Simon’s capacity to vary paces and angles might be just the ticket. It’s a long shot, almost no shot. The only other shot was probably to play Richard Gasquet, and pray the match falls on that one day a year when he is incapable of missing the court, no matter how hard he swings. It’s a lot to shoot for, and Forget was probably wise in opting for the marginally shorter of the extreme long-shots open to him.

I suspect we’ll have a pretty good idea after the first match how this final is going to play out, whether the French can contrive a desperate victory, or whether we’ll simply shake our heads at the gallant, crushed visitors, and sigh “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.

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