France and Australia even after opening day

Friday, November 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ It wasn't so surprising that France and Australia were tied after the first day of the Davis Cup final. What was surprising was how they got that way.

Friday started with an upset victory by France's Nicolas Escude _ who had won just one match since September's U.S. Open _ over the world's No. 1 player, Lleyton Hewitt.

Then came a gutsy performance by Pat Rafter, whose place on the Australian team was in doubt because of tendinitis in his right arm.

``I've played so many Davis Cup matches and I've watched so many that a lot of times a lot of unexpected things happen,'' French captain Guy Forget said. ``And now again.''

Rafter, who beat Sebastien Grosjean 6-3, 7-6 (6), 7-5, said he wasn't sure how his sore arm would feel until he woke up Friday morning.

But he made sure he and his teammates felt better Friday night after Escude gave France a 1-0 lead by beating Hewitt, winner of 22 of his previous 24 matches, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

``Right now, the adrenalin is pumping,'' Rafter said of his injury. ``I've just iced it, so you don't know about these things until the morning.''

On Saturday, Wayne Arthurs and Todd Woodbridge will lead Australia in doubles against Cedric Pioline and Fabrice Santoro, but changes can be made to the doubles lineup up to an hour before the match.

Australian captain John Fitzgerald said he might do just that.

``We will give it a little bit of thought,'' Fitzgerald said. ``We will see how the big fellow (Rafter) is feeling and what the rest of the team thinks.''

Forget said he doesn't plan to change the French doubles team.

On Sunday in the reverse singles, Hewitt will play Grosjean and Rafter will be paired against Escude.

Rafter was down a break in the second set, and Grosjean was serving for the set at 5-3 when Rafter broke back.

Grosjean had three set points in the tiebreaker, but Rafter saved all three. Grosjean then double-faulted, giving Rafter a set point, then hit a forehand long to give Rafter the tiebreaker and the second set.

``He never was the same player in the third set,'' Rafter said. ``He was scrambling and I felt like I had him on the ropes a lot more. He made a bit of a boo-boo there.''

Escude broke Hewitt in the eighth games of the second and fourth sets, then held his serve in the pivotal eighth game of the fifth set after Hewitt held three break points.

Hewitt was only able to convert three of his 18 break chances in the match, while Escude took advantage of four of eight.

``I felt the match start to go my way in the fourth, and the key was holding my serve when it seemed as if Lleyton would come back in the fifth,'' Escude said.

The win was Escude's second in a row over Hewitt after beating the Australian in five sets in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Escude is perfect in Davis Cup play, winning all seven in his career, while Hewitt was unbeaten in seven previous Davis Cup matches this year.

Escude, urged on by a chanting group of about 50 Frenchmen led by a bongo drum-playing fan and another with a megaphone, took advantage of his first break opportunity in the match, breaking Hewitt to go up 5-3 in the second set.

Hewitt won the third set after breaking Escude in the sixth game, but Escude came back in the fourth set, again breaking Hewitt in the eighth game _ on only his third break opportunity of the match.

Hewitt continued to struggle with his serve when he was broken again in the third game of the final set.

The Australian angrily threw his racket after failing to convert his second break point in the eighth game, but only stared blankly at the ground after Escude held serve to go up 5-3.

Escude watched in the 10th game as Hewitt's backhand lob floated long, giving him the victory in the 3-hour, 24-minute match.