PARIS, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- The French will pit their team spirit against Russian star power Friday when they look to defend their Davis Cup crown at the Palais Omnisports Paris Bercy.
France has not had the great players it had when dominating the Davis Cup in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it has managed a level mastery of the event in recent years.
The French will be playing in their fourth final of the team competition in the last seven years. They won last year and in 1996, as well as seven other times in the history of the Davis Cup.
The same team that will be representing them this year pulled off an upset of heavily favored Australia in the final on grass in Melbourne last season. The Australians fielded a team that featured world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter.
Russia has the big names this time around in third-ranked Marat Safin and two-time Grand Slam winner Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who also will play doubles together.
"The Russians are better than us individually," French team captain Guy Forget said. "But there are always surprises. I am lucky to have players who can play the perfect match when needed.
"What makes our team so strong is definitely the friendship and collective spirit within the team. From that point of view, we are definitely stronger than the Russians even if their potential is higher than ours."
France does not field a player ranked among the top 15 this year. Sebastien Grosjean finished 16th, only after winning his first title of the year in St. Petersburg, Russia last month.
Arnaud Clement was to be France's second singles player but has been inconsistent since reaching the Australian Open final in 2001. A flare-up of an old wrist injury could give Forget the excuse to replace Clement with 20-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu, who won his first two career tournaments in Lyon and Moscow last month.
Clement was replaced last year in the finals against Australia.
"Guy knows me well," he said. "It's not with words that I'll convince him, but on the court, by the quality of my tennis, by my commitment to training."
Mathieu, who has been practicing with the French team, is not officially part of the squad but could be selected as a replacement. He could make his Davis Cup debut if he is picked by Forget on Thursday, when the final draw is made.
"If I have to play I'm ready, although everyone wants to play," said Mathieu, who is fully recovered from an abdominal injury. "The fact that this is a final doesn't change anything. I think I've proved that I can rise to the big occasions."
The Russians do not believe a switch will change their chances to win their first Davis Cup. They hosted the final in 1994 and 1995, but lost to Sweden and the United States.
That Russian team was basically a one-man attack by Kafelnikov, who now has the extremely talented but flaky Safin at his side.
"Everything depends on how the Russian players play," Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev said.
Safin likes playing at the Palais Omnisports, having won the Paris Open here two of the last three years, although on a hard court, not the specially laid clay court the French chose for the final. He thrashed Hewitt in the final here earlier this month for his first title of the year.
"I love Paris and France," Safin said. "I feel comfortable, especially in Bercy. I like the stadium, I am happy when I play here and hopefully I will make a big result again this week."
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