By Martyn Herman
MADRID (Reuters) - The last time France played a Davis Cup tie around 60,000 fans flocked to Lille's Stade Pierre Mauroy soccer stadium over three days to watch them lose the 2018 final to Croatia.
On Tuesday, the 10-times champions began their quest to reclaim the trophy in front of a handful of their supporters in Madrid's La Caja Magica -- the venue for the revamped Davis Cup.
It was a surreal experience for Les Bleus whose fan club usually travels the world to cheer them on.
However, they have boycotted the Madrid showpiece in protest at the traditional "home and away" format being largely scrapped by the International Tennis Federation in favour of an 18-nation season-ending climax played in one city over seven days.
Doubles player Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who with Nicolas Mahut at least made sure top seeds France beat Japan 2-1, summed up the sensation of having virtually no French fans.
"Actually, it was pretty special because it was the first time I hear myself singing La Marseillaise," he told reporters after he and Mahut scrambled past Ben McLachlan and Yasutaka Uchiyama 6-7(4) 6-4 7-5.
Davis Cup stalwart Mahut, who was scathing of the changes last year, said it had been a 'strange feeling' but added: "Once you start and you play with France on the back, you forget everything. You play for your team mates."
The match was played on Court 2, which holds around 3,500 people but only a few hundred were present including an enthusiastic block of Japan supporters.
It was not a good look, although on Monday on the same court a superb clash between Canada and Italy had noisy backing for both teams. Belgium's fans were also prominent on Monday in their win over Colombia despite also threatening a boycott.
The singles had been shared with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga thrashing Uchiyama 6-2 6-1 before world number 10 Gael Monfils surprisingly lost in straight sets to Yoshihito Nishioka.
France's two-time Davis Cup winner Fabrice Santoro said the lack of atmosphere had clearly affected Monfils.
"There was no energy coming from the crowd," Santoro told Reuters. "It's sad to see. But the French fans are sending a message to the ITF that they are not happy. Even if France get through to the later rounds they won't come. We'll see what happens. But so, for me, the format is so-so."
France captain Sebastien Grosjean said he understood the French fans staying away, but hoped they might still make it.
"We need them, we need more energy from the crowd," he said.
In the day's other early ties, Argentina beat Chile 3-0 in Group C in front of fans wearing the famous blue and white.
Guido Pella eased past Chile's Nicolas Jarry 6-4 6-3 before Diego Schwartzman crushed Cristian Garin 6-2 6-2.
In Group E Kazakhstan edged past the Netherlands 2-1 thanks to a doubles win for Mikhail Kukushkin and Alexander Bublik over Robin Haase and Jean-Julien Rojer.
Each tie consists of two singles and one doubles. The six group winners plus two best runners-up go on to the knockout rounds later in the week. Hosts Spain face Russia later.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar, Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis)