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France takes lead in Davis Cup

MELBOURNE, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- A last-minute decision by Australian coach John Fitzgerald backfired Saturday and France took advantage of it to claim a 2-1 lead in the Davis Cup Finals.

Fitzgerald replaced the original doubles team of Wayne Arthurs and Todd Woodbridge with singles stars Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt an hour before the match was to begin.

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The move, however, failed as the French tandem of Fabrice Santoro and Cedric Pioline rallied for a 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 victory to put their country on the brink of its ninth Davis Cup triumph.

Nicolas Escude upset Hewitt, the world No. 1, in five sets on Friday, but Australia leveled the tie when Rafter, who will retire following this competition, beat Sebastien Grosjean in straight sets.

In Sunday's reverse singles, Hewitt will take on Grosjean before Rafter battles Escude.

Hewitt and Rafter, whose doubles win helped defeat Brazil in the second round, put themselves in position to prove Fitzergald right when they won the first set in 34 minutes.

But the Australians showed their inexperience as a unit and Santoro and Pioline slowly began to dominate, winning the match in two hours, 30 minutes.

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"We had two of the best players in the world there," Fitzgerald said. "I have no regrets, I think it was the right decision and I stand by it. I'd rather be 2-1 up. But look at the names on paper. We've got Lleyton Hewitt playing first singles tomorrow, and a pretty good grass court player after that. I think the bottom line is that I have faith in these guys."

The doubles point has proved crucial in the Davis Cup Finals as the winner has won the title the last 23 years. The last time a country lost the doubles and went on to win was Australia in 1977.

Santoro and Pioline came into Saturday's match with just a 2-4 record as a pair, but their two wins gave France the decisive point each time. Their only Davis Cup loss was in France's 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Switzerland, when they fell in five sets.

"So far it's such a great weekend of tennis for us," said French captain Guy Forget. "That's definitely the best tennis I've ever seen them play together."

"It was probably the most important doubles match I've ever played," Santoro said. "It's a great feeling to have a win. Hopefully we can keep this level tomorrow."

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France is seeking its third Davis Cup triumph since World War II, having won the trophy in 1991 and 1996.

Australia captured the Davis Cup for the 21st time in 1999, edging France, 3-2. But the Aussies were dethroned by Spain in last year's final.

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