LILLE, France — With no player standing out as a clear leader, France captain Yannick Noah chose Jeremy Chardy ahead of Lucas Pouille for the opening match of the Davis Cup final against Croatia.
The 40th-ranked Chardy, in the team only after Richard Gasquet withdrew injured, will lead defending champion France against Borna Coric on indoor clay at Pierre Mauroy Stadium on Friday.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who’s missed most of the year through injury and dropped to 259th in the rankings, will play Marin Cilic, Croatia’s top player, in the second singles.
Pouille sealed France’s victory over Belgium in last year’s final and was widely expected to be playing again.
Noah explained after the draw on Thursday, “I have the feeling that in Davis Cup the one who attacks generally wins. And Jeremy is a terrific attacking player.”
Although he’s in his first Davis Cup final, Chardy has won all three of his previous rubbers on indoor clay, and has a 2-1 record against Coric.
“I did not feel I’m the favorite,” the 12th-ranked Coric said. “It’s 50-50. I’ve lost twice against Chardy. The last time on clay.”
It’s the second consecutive year Noah has taken a gamble in the final. Last year, he fielded an inexperienced pair in doubles and was rewarded by a victory that put France one point away from the title.
“It’s never easy to make choices,” Noah said. “This one was very difficult, and subtle. The strength in this team is that we have three players capable of playing in singles.”
Noah took advantage of a new rule this year increasing the size of teams from four to five players, giving captains more leeway in selection. He said Pouille, who was born close to Lille, will be ready to play on Sunday if needed.
“Honestly, I was not surprised,” Croatia captain Zeljko Krajan said of Noah’s nominations. “I know Yannick can sometimes pull a joker out of his pocket and I thought Chardy could be his joker this weekend.”
Tsonga appears to be set up for a thrashing from Cilic.
Cilic qualified for the eight-man ATP Finals this month, while Tsonga returned to competitive tennis only in September after a seven-month absence due to a knee injury. But Noah said he has been impressed by Tsonga’s form during France’s training camp.
Tsonga said the prospect of playing in the final gave him an extra motivation to come back.
“When I was struggling, the only way to hang on was to think about the fabulous moments which deserve our sacrifices,” Tsonga said. “When I decided to return it was, among other things, because of the Davis Cup.”
Cilic praised the quality of the clay court under the roof of Lille’s soccer stadium but complained about the lightning and the uneven temperature across the arena.
“The light is not good at all,” he said. “It’s difficult to see in the corners.”
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who reached the final at the ATP Finals, are scheduled to face Croatian pair Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig in Saturday’s doubles.
In Sunday’s reverse singles, Chardy is set to face Cilic, and Tsonga to take on Coric.