NICE, France — Australia and France, two countries that take great pride in team results, played the last Davis Cup final of the 1900s, on an indoor clay court, and it was decided by a player who wasn't even part of the team last year.
Mark Philippoussis, who declined Davis Cup invitations in 1996 and 1998, was the star of Australia's 3-2 victory, clinching the team championship in the fourth match of the competition with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Cedric Pioline, the 30-year-old French leader. That victory, giving Australia a 3-1 lead, meant the 23-year-old accounted for two of his country's three points, his first coming in Friday's singles, when he destroyed Sebastien Grosjean, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, at the Palais des Exposition.
In 2 hours 42 minutes Sunday, Philippoussis hit 54 winners, served 15 aces and made a mere 33 unforced errors against Pioline. Statistics aside, the key was concentration. "This is the start of my tennis career," he said after the Aussie team celebrated on court. "I honestly think so. I've never concentrated or played as well as I did today. In the past, Davis Cup matches have started careers. This is the start of mine."
Before the final began, there were doubts about Philippoussis being a team player. It was rumored that he and team captain John Newcombe were not exactly mates. Philippoussis even went as far as attending Australia's first-round loss to Zimbabwe, in 1998, as a spectator after declining to participate.
"I've been young, I'm still young now," he said after defeating Pioline. "I've learned from my mistakes. Everything negative, in the past, has been put behind me. We came in as a team. We're going to leave as a team."
Before meeting the French in the final, he had a 1-1 Davis Cup record, having played only against Zimbabwe this year. He began the season brilliantly, winning at San Jose and Indian Wells, but things came apart at Wimbledon when he suffered a knee injury in the quarterfinals against Pete Sampras. He had surgery, returned to the tour in seven weeks, experienced discomfort and took another eight weeks off. The fall indoor season was spent getting his game together.
After his victory over Grosjean, Philippoussis made a point. "I'm out to prove something," he said. "I'm out to prove how important Davis Cup is to me because some people think that it's not. This is the biggest win of my life so far. There's nothing more important to an athlete than representing his country. You can't really understand the true feeling until you play in a final. Today was what it is all about."
Grosjean defeated Lleyton Hewitt, 6-4, 6-3, in the last match after Philippoussis secured the title.
Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde had given Australia a 2-1 lead Saturday, staging a momentous comeback in doubles. Trailing, 6-2, 5-2, the Woodies edged the team of Olivier Delaitre and Fabrice Santoro, 2-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
"I've never seen Mark so emotional," Woodbridge said. "I know how much weight I'd been putting on him trying to come here and play well. Personally, this is one of the most rewarding wins we've ever had."
As important as the singles victories were for Philippoussis, the Davis Cup victory was even more meaningful for Newcombe and team coach Tony Roche. In six years at the helm, they had a 9-5 record with three first-round World Group losses, and had never taken a team to the final.
French captain Guy Forget put the final in perspective.
"The main thing is that the crowd was able to dream, able to laugh and maybe cry at the end with us," he said. "But, they were there, present, 100%. If we won, it's all the better. Since we lost, never mind. We cannot give more than we have in our hands and in our minds."
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Davis Cup: Most titles
Country Titles Last United States 31 1995 Australia 27 1999 France 8 1996 Sweden 7 1998 New Zealand 6 1919