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Sampras's Loss, France's Gain
Starting Point for Leconte, 'Turning Point' for Forget

December 3, 1991

"Inoubliable!" screamed the sports daily L'Equipe today, and there could be no doubt that France's stunning upset of the defending champion United States in the Davis Cup finals was indeed unforgettable. But when the last dancers climb off the cafe tables, it remains to be seen which image is the most lasting.

Will this be remembered as the lost weekend of Pete Sampras? He came into the Palais des Sport de Gerland as the hottest U.S.player, ranked No. 6 and having won the ATP World Championship, but also a rookie to Davis Cup. "I feel very confident," he said Thursday. "I just want to relax and play my game."

Instead, he was blown away Friday night by Henri Leconte, a streaky, emotion-charged player who has been in and out of the top 10 throughout his career and who now, at 28, is returning from his third back operation and is ranked 159th. Leconte, who pumped his fists like Jimmy Connors, exchanged clenches with French team captain Yannick Noah, and Sampras stood stock still as the crowd grew louder and his defeat Friday more certain.

Sunday, Sampras faced Guy Forget, at No. 7 the top French player but a loser Friday to Andre Agassi in the opening match. Sampras raised his game to a higher level and had his big serve working for 14 aces. But Forget served up 17 and Sampras blew a set point in the first-set tiebreaker and four break points in the ninth game of the third set as he went down to the numbing defeat.

"I wasn't really nervous, but nervous enough so it affected my game," Sampras said looking back. "What are you going to do?"

Tom Gorman, the U.S. captain, hopes Sampras doesn't shoulder all responsibility for the loss.

"I told him not to be so hard on himself," said Gorman, who was fielding questions about his own contribution to the U.S. demise -- like whether it was smart to play the rookie and drop world No. 2 Jim Courier, and if Ken Flach and Robert Seguso were the right choice to supplant Scott Davis and David Pate in doubles after a two-year Davis Cup absence?

Everyone had a hindsight candidate: One reporter asked if Gorman shouldn't talk to John McEnroe (to which Gorman responded he didn't understand the question) and an Italian journalist declared that it would have been different if Michael Chang had played singles.

Gorman shook his head and pointed to another player: Leconte. "He's the man," he said.

And that's the other way this weekend might be remembered, the way everyone here was seeing it as the champagne flowed and the French drank in the sensation of owning the Davis Cup for the first time in 59 years. It was the triumph of romance over logic, of the rubber-faced Leconte and the free-spirited Noah over U.S. players with bigger forehands but not bigger hearts.

"We really took it very seriously, not like the Americans who maybe thought they would win easily," said Forget.

"Les Nouveau Mousquetaires" read a banner recalling the legendary Four Mousquetaires who swept France into nine Davis Cup finals from 1925 to 1933.

Leconte was being asked if he was the most popular athlete in France, about where his comeback might find him in 1992, but he is a physical not a verbal master, so he let his emotions take over.

He sang lustily as the French national anthem played, tears streaming down his face. He hugged the stuffed animal that is his team's mascot during the awards ceremony and didn't even bother to try to dry his eyes as he told French television interviewers how overcome he was.

Noah too was overcome, but rarely has he been at a loss for words. He said the reality had not yet hit him or his players, the understanding that they had finally accomplished their greatest goal.

"We were dreaming of it when we were training, when we were having our meals, when we were running in the woods," he said as he sat surrounded by not only Forget and Leconte but also the players who contributed in earlier victories over Israel, Australia and Yugoslavia -- Arnaud Boetsch, Olivier Delaitre and Fabrice Santoro.

"We've lived it already," Noah said of his team, "but when you see the player winning match point, it is different. It is very difficult for us to realize what is happening."

Forget said he could not articulate the metamorphosis of one who said earlier this year that he could not imagine letting loose even if he won the French Open, but who rolled on the court Sunday and tossed his shirt to the crowd.

Forget said he almost tossed his racket in the air before his winning forehand, only to see Sampras return the backhand he had been so sure would be the last shot.

"I had to hit it back then with the wrong grip and everything," Forget said.

From here, Sampras heads home. "It certainly ends my year on a very sour note," he said. Noah heads off to promote his debut album, "Black and What!" and its single, "Saga Africa." Forget and Leconte have their careers stretching ahead, a white-hot light illuminating the way.

"This is maybe one of the most beautiful steps in my career," Forget said. "I think it's going to be the same for Henri and the other players. Anyway, it's a turning point in my career and will remain my best memory."


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