LILLE – Marin Cilic heads into this weekend's Davis Cup final against reigning champions France in Lille bidding to put his woes against Argentina two years ago to bed by leading Croatia to victory.
The former US Open champion led Juan Martin del Potro by two sets in the 2016 final in Zagreb with the hosts only needing one more win for the title, but slipped to an agonising defeat as Argentina roared back to lift the trophy.
But now he has the chance to claim a first Davis Cup in the final year before the controversial new format is implemented by the ITF
Croatia will be slight favourites despite having to face France on clay at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, with world number 12 Borna Coric supporting the seventh-ranked Cilic.
"Two years ago, we were in the lead on the last day and very close to winning it," remembered Cilic. "We have a new opportunity. It's a big challenge and a great motivation."
France's leading man is Lucas Pouille, who has slipped out of the top 10 to 32nd in the rankings this year, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is struggling to regain full fitness after several spells off the court through injury.
But Cilic, who also reached the 2017 Wimbledon final and the Australian Open final earlier this year, is wary of a France team that ended a 16-year wait for their 10th Davis Cup crown by beating Belgium 12 months ago.
"It's hard to say that Croatia are favourites," he insisted. "France are playing at home, in front of their home fans. They have a strong doubles team - it's an open match."
One of the keys to the tie will be whether the big-hitting Cilic and Coric can adapt to playing on clay after a long hardcourt season.
Clay 'not a problem'
The 30-year-old Cilic has won only two of his 18 ATP titles on the red dirt, although has improved and reached the French Open quarter-finals in each of the last two years.
But he is confident that he will be ready and will not be fatigued after last week's exit from the ATP Finals in London at the round-robin stage.
"I don't think that it's a big problem," Cilic added. "We have four, five days to prepare. It's not ideal, we would love to have two or three weeks, but I think it will be enough."
France captain Yannick Noah has a serious selection headache ahead of Thursday's draw.
The doubles pairing is not an issue, with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut set to reprise the partnership which took them to the final of the season-ending Finals at the O2 Arena.
But although Pouille is likely to get a singles slot alongside Tsonga or Benoit Paire, the top three Frenchmen in the ATP rankings - Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon - are not part of the squad.
"It's true that it's not an easy selection," admitted assistant captain and two-time Grand Slam finalist Cedric Pioline. "Just because a player misses out on Friday, it doesn't mean he won't be playing on Sunday."
Agence France-Presse (AFP)