Pouille wins five-setter to put France on brink of Davis Cup final

France's Lucas Pouille gestures to the crowd after victory in his singles match against Spain's Roberto Bautista-Agut in the Davis Cup semifinal tennis match between Spain and France at Villeneuve-d'Ascq, northern France, on Friday. — AFP

Villeneuve-d'Ascq, France — Lucas Pouille dug deep to deny Roberto Bautista-Agut in five sets to give France both points on the opening day of their Davis Cup semi-final against Spain on Friday.

The French No. 1 fought back from losing the first set to see off the Spaniard 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 at Lille's Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

He took to the court with the hosts and defending champions already off the mark after Benoit Paire enjoyed a dream Davis Cup debut with a 7-5, 6-1, 6-0 defeat of Pablo Carreno Busta in Friday's opening rubber.

France captain Yannick Noah had admitted on the eve of competition that handing Paire a Davis Cup debut in a semifinal was "not an easy choice" but the gamble paid off handsomely.

His win, with Paire doubling up, leaves France 2-0 and heading for a final against either Croatia or the United States in November. Croatia lead USA by an identical 2-0 margin going into Saturday's middle day doubles.

Paire made a remarkable Davis Cup debut for France, outplaying an injured Carreno-Busta in the opening rubber of the World Group semifinal tie.

Paire had never been selected for his country in the 'World Cup of tennis' before, admitting himself that his explosive, erratic performances on court meant he could previously never properly be trusted.

Yet he has grown into a much more reliable and consistent performer in 2018 which prompted the champions' captain Yannick Noah to select him for his first tie at the unlikely age of 29 and he was rewarded with a virtuoso and merciless performance against an ailing opponent.

"I've waited a long time for this and it's a dream to win on my debut," said Paire. "Though it's been a long time, hopefully it's not too late for me and I'll get more chances. I'm really proud, as it was an important game for me and for my team to give us the lead."

Playing with real flair, not holding back and looking as if he was made for Davis Cup theatrics, Paire also showed real heart when struggling in the first set as he three times had to battle back from a set point down.

Paire, the world No. 54, started with predictable unpredictability, delivering nine double faults in the opening set but after saving the set points with steel, the bearded shotmaker was freed to play his most attractive tennis.

His ascent coincided with Carreno Busta's struggles as the Spaniard, taking the team's No. 1 spot in the absence of the injured Rafael Nadal, was hit by a recurrence of the adductor problem that forced him to withdraw during a second round match at the US Open.

From 3-5 down, he rallied to win the next nine games and, in total, 16 of the last 17 as his all-court attacking approach showed up Carreno Busta's hampered movement as he succumbed in less than two hours.

"We knew there was some risk in playing but I felt really good yesterday and decided to play," explained Carreno Busta. "But I felt it again and it was getting worse so that at 3-0, 4-0 in the second set I knew it was impossible to come back."

Cilic and Coric give Croatia

flying start in Davis Cup semi

Marin Cilic gave Croatia a stranglehold over the United States as he beat Frances Tiafoe 6-1, 6-3, 7-6(7-5) to put the hosts 2-0 ahead in their Davis Cup semifinal in Zadar on Friday.

Cilic overwhelmed the American youngster in the opening two sets but was made to work harder in the third as Tiafoe finally shook off his debut nerves.

The match was umpired by Portugal's Carlos Ramos — the official accused of sexism by American Serena Williams after docking her a game during a tumultuous US Open final.

Thankfully for Ramos this match was a more tranquil affair, apart from the noisy Croatian crowd cheering on their man.

Cilic's victory made him Croatia's most successful Davis Cup player, moving him past the 36 rubbers won by Ivan Ljubicic.

Earlier, Borna gave Croatia a flying start by defeating Steve Johnson 6-4, 7-6(7-4), 6-3 in the opening rubber.

The 21-year-old Coric had lost his only previous encounter with the US number three at Roland Garros but on Zadar's clay courts drew first blood for the hosts against Johnson, who was leading his country in the absence of John Isner and Jack Sock.

Coric's emphatic win just underlined why the Croats, who had won all their four previous ties with the Davis Cup's most successful nation, were overwhelming favorites to repeat the dose and reach the final of the last Davis Cup to be played in its traditional historic format before next year's revamp.

World No. 18 Coric was impressive from the start, taking an early break for 2-1, aided by Johnson missing plenty of first serves, and controlling the 35-minute opening stanza.

The youngster brought the crowd to their feet with one extraordinary 'tweener' lob that left Johnson flat-footed as he earned another quick break in the second set but the American fought back strongly to take it to a tiebreak.

Coric again stepped up his game, reeling off the final four points of the breaker, featuring a glorious forehand winner and a fine volley, to seal it 7-4. He then forged home his advantage over the world number 30 in the third set to wrap up victory in two hours and 24 minutes.

Japan race to 2-0 lead over

Bosnia in Davis Cup playoff

Japan took a commanding 2-0 lead on the first day of their Davis Cup World Cup playoff against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday despite the absence of US Open semifinalist Kei Nishikori.

With Nishikori unavailable for the hosts, world No. 72 Taro Daniel put Japan in charge of the tie, crushing Tomislav Brkic 6-4, 6-2, 7-6. Ranked a lowly world No. 240, Brkic was no match for the 25-year-old Daniel, who smashed down 15 aces to wrap up the rubber in just over two hours in Osaka.

He had his chances to extend the match in the third but Daniel never looked in doubt in the breaker, taking it 7-3 just as rain began to fall. "I couldn't be happier with how I played," Daniel told reporters.

"The support really helped make it easier. You're playing for the fans in the Davis Cup, playing Tennis from the heart."

Yoshihito Nishioka punched above his weight in the second match as the world No. 170 thrashed 79th-ranked Mirza Basic 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 to give Japan a huge advantage going into Saturday's doubles.

Japanese Tennis is riding high, celebrating its first Grand Slam singles winner in Naomi Osaka, who stunned Serena Williams in a controversial US Open final last weekend.

Nishikori fell to eventual winner Novak Djokovic in the men's semifinals in New York, meaning Japan had players in the top four in both draws of a major tournament for the first time.

Japan tend to struggle without Nishikori in the Davis Cup, however, and are in a World Group playoff for the fourth consecutive year after losing to Italy in 2017.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are through to this stage of the competition for the first time but will need a dramatic turn-around to secure a World Group berth. — Reuters