‘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 Forgetâ€™s seemingly baffling decision to play Gilles Simon in singles in this weekendâ€™s Davis Cup final, that a tactical masterstroke is often little more than a stupid decision that comes off. Usually it doesnâ€™t. Tactically, Forgetâ€™s â€˜inspirationâ€™ seems roughly on par with the British decision to charge the Russian artillery at Balaclava. The stakes arenâ€™t quite as high, though you wouldnâ€™t know it from listening to Novak Djokovic this week. Iâ€™ll be curious to see if the French Davis Cup squad fares any better than the 17th Lancers. It wonâ€™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. Itâ€™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. Simonâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 snowflakeâ€™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 Simonâ€™s capacity to vary paces and angles might be just the ticket. Itâ€™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. Itâ€™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 weâ€™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 weâ€™ll simply shake our heads at the gallant, crushed visitors, and sigh “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.