With France desperate for victory, Cedric Pioline won two tiebreakers today to leave his country tied with Australia after the opening day of the Davis Cup final.
Before a roaring home crowd and French flags lining the arena, Pioline held off 18-year-old Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (8-6), 7-5. He needed to save a set point in the first set and then regroup after squandering a 5-1 lead in the third.
His victory on clay was critical for the French after Mark Philippoussis of Australia beat Sebastien Grosjean, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, in the opening match.
"Cedric's match was typical Davis Cup with both guys giving their best with absolutely no limits," French captain Guy Forget said. "Cedric was getting frustrated in the third set but I told him to believe in the quality of his game."
The best-of-five series resumes Saturday with Fabrice Santoro and Olivier Delaitre against the excellent Australian doubles team of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. Reverse singles on Sunday will decide the title.
France, which last won the Davis Cup in 1996, advanced to the final by beating the Netherlands, Brazil and Belgium. Australia, its last Davis Cup title in 1986, stopped Zimbabwe, the United States and Russia.
Pioline looked ready to take the first set after racing to a 5-1 tiebreaker lead. But Hewitt, saving three set points, evened it at 6-6. Pioline then volleyed into the net. But the Australian, serving for the set, double-faulted to make it 7-7. Hewitt hit weakly into the net and made a bad shot to give Pioline the tiebreaker.
In the second-set tiebreaker, Pioline took a 5-1 lead but Hewitt again saved three set points to make it 6-6. This time, Hewitt hit long after the changeover. Facing set point, he sent a forehand wide.
Philippoussis had a far easier time in the opener.
"This was definitely one of the most important wins of my career, maybe the most important," he said. "I was calm, surprisingly calm with all the noise out there. But when I heard the national anthem I went out and knew I was ready."