Yannick Noah inspires French team as Jamie Murray rails against neutral final for Davis Cup plans

Simon Briggs
Old enemies: Yannick Noah's France and Leon Smith's GB face off in the Davis Cup quarters  - Rex Features

Great Britain will not just be playing Lucas Pouille and Jeremy Chardy when this afternoon's Davis Cup quarter-final gets underway at 1pm BST on Friday.

They will be up against one of the most charismatic figures in sport, French captain Yannick Noah, the only man in history to be both a grand-slam champion and a platinum-selling recording artist.

At the traditional pre-match dinner on Wednesday night, the British captain Leon Smith gave his usual speech. He was then effortlessly upstaged by Noah’s a capella version of a west African folk song, which found the assembled dignitaries joining in for a collective chorus.

“It was like a West End show,” said Smith afterwards. “One of the best things I’ve ever seen.”

Man of many parts: French tennis legend Yannick Noah performing at a rock gig Credit: EPA

Noah is a hero both to the public – who regularly vote him the most popular man in France – and to his players, who could be seen laughing and clapping all the way through his performance.

Called back to the captaincy for the third time last year, he has as good a chance as anyone of awakening this sleeping Davis Cup giant.

France have not won the competition since 2001, even though they are surely the world’s leading tennis nation, supplying 48 members of the world’s top 500 to Great Britain’s meagre 13.

As the teams assembled for yesterday’s draw ceremony, Noah was full of enthusiasm for his men, especially Jeremy Chardy, the world No. 68 whom he has promoted to the front line ahead of the more experienced Gilles Simon.

“Yes, he’s new,” said Noah of Chardy, “but he doesn't have anything to lose. From the way they behave, the body language and the results when they play sets, I could really sense that he wanted it.”

Yet Noah turned melancholy when asked about the future of the Davis Cup, a competition that is finding it increasingly hard to attract the top players.

Missing man: Great Britain will have to do without the services of Andy Murray Credit: Getty

As in the February’s opening round, Novak Djokovic is the only member of the top ten to make himself available in these quarter-finals.

The excuses all look reasonable enough - Andy Murray has an elbow tear which is now being tested via light practice sessions in Nice, Rafael Nadal is resting up after his runner-up finish at the Miami Open and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga recently welcomed his firstborn son Shugar – but they are part of a worrying pattern.

“I guess I'm from the old generation,” said Noah. “It's almost devastating to see such an event disappearing. It is heartbreaking for me. Of course I understand that the economy is central to all the decisions nowadays but sometimes dreamers can think there is more than that.

“I always played in the competition,” Noah added. “It was an opportunity to meet other people, and go to different places where they don't have the opportunity to see this kind of tennis. So yes we might have a different format and go to Dubai [for a neutral final]. It's going to be economically very good but I think we're going to lose something that is essential which is about two countries meeting each other.

"There were 4,000 kids here [watching practice on Wednesday] that will never see such players again unless they go to the French Open. This Davis Cup can do that. It seems that I don't read this much about the Davis Cup, I read a lot about privileged people acting like privileged people and it's sad.”

Noah’s complaints mainly came at the expense of the business-first attitude of the modern stars. World No. 6 Milos Raonic, who rarely plays in the Davis Cup and once described himself as “the chief executive officer of Milos Raonic tennis", is surely the ultimate example. But question marks also surround the wider future of the competition.

A vote at August’s AGM of the International Tennis Federation will almost certainly approve the reduction of singles matches to best-of-three sets, while maintaining the best-of-five-set doubles rubber on the Saturday as the centrepiece of each tie.

This much has broad approval from players and stakeholders. The bigger controversy relates to the idea of a neutral final, which would maximise commercial opportunities for the ITF, while stripping out the vivid tribalism that animates these home-and-away ties, and makes them different from the rest of the ATP calendar.

Patriotic: Kyle Edmund, Andy Murray, captain Leon Smith, James Ward and Jamie Murray have been inspired to Davis Cup greatness by national pride Credit: PA

British doubles player Jamie Murray was highly critical of this suggestion on  Thursday.

“Dave [Haggerty], the ITF president] came and made a speech to the player council,” Murray said.

“We gave our opinions and then the next day the message was, ‘We are going ahead anyway’. Neutral final, that sort of stuff.  I can tell you the players do not want to do that but they are pushing ahead with it.”

In a press briefing on Thursday night, Haggerty responded to Murray's criticism.

"I think we have worked hard to communicate with the players and the captains," Haggerty said.

"We are committed to continuing those dialogues. The board is very strong in its commitment that we need to make change and these changes are good."

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