Throughout history, Davis Cup finals have not only been the pinnacle of the tennis season but also the arenas of some of the exciting matches ever. Twenty-six of those were decided in the fifth rubber and one of the most entertaining and thrilling finals came in 1996 when Sweden hosted France in Massan Hall in Malmo, with the deciding day that offered two outstanding encounters that lasted nine hours and 13 minutes combined!
After all kinds of drama and emotion, it was Arnaud Boetsch who delivered the deciding point over Nicklas Kulti to bring the title for France after having to give his best to survive a stern challenge from the home player.
The final will also be remembered as the swan song from great Stefan Edberg who suffered an injury in the opening rubber against Cedric Pioline. He was able to complete that match that Pioline won 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, but the twisted ankle in the first set proved to be too serious, ruling Edberg out after what had been his last match in a career.
He was supposed to play that fifth rubber against Boetsch whom he beat ten out of 11 times but couldn’t train on Saturday due to the pain in the ankle and had to be replaced by Kulti. In the second match on Friday, Thomas Enqvist took down Arnaud Boetsch 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(2) to level the score at 1-1 and keep the home nation in contention, sending the attention to Saturday’s doubles rubber.
Guy Forget and Guillaume Raoux earned the second point for France, ousting Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 (Bjorkman got broken four times) and moving a victory away from the first title in five years.
Also, the tradition worked against Sweden when we know they lost all Davis Cup finals after failing to clinch the doubles point, something that proved to be true this time as well. What happened on Sunday is written down in tennis books as one of the greatest days in the history of the competition, with both rubbers passing the 6-6 mark in the fifth set to keep those with feeble heart away from the stands or the TV!
Thomas Enqvist stepped on the court as the biggest hope for the Swedes, winning the indoor tournaments in Stockholm and Paris before this final and playing well on Friday in that second rubber. After four hours and 26 minutes of titanic battle, Thomas produced a miracle comeback against Cedric Pioline, prevailing 3-6, 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-4, 9-7 to perform one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the game.
Pioline was 6-3, 7-6, 4-2 in front when Enqvist set the comeback trail, rattling off four games in a row to steal the third set and get himself back into contention. Flying on the wings of the home crowd support, Thomas won the fourth set by the same scoreline and the stage was set for a decider, a must-win one for the home player.
They both saved the best for last and it was Pioline who was two points away from notching the title for France in game 14 before Enqvist survived to level the score at 7-7. That game proved to be an even more massive one when Thomas broke a few minutes later to move 8-7 in front, sealing the deal with a good hold in game 16 to wrap up the triumph for Sweden and send this outstanding tie into the fifth rubber.
Instead of Edberg, Nicklas Kulti held the dreams of the nation in his hands and gave everything he had against Arnaud Boetsch, losing 7-6, 2-6, 4-6, 7-6, 10-8 in four hours and 47 minutes after wasting three match points at 7-6 in the deciding set!
Boetsch resisted all the obstacles to score the victory of his career and claim the title for France, becoming the first player in history who saved a match point in the deciding Davis Cup final match! Kulti was crushed, battling with heavy cramps in the last set to somehow earn those match points and knowing he could have won all the sets he lost!
The Swede squandered two set points in the 12th game of the first set before losing it in the tie break, recovering from that setback instantly to push even stronger, taking the next two sets to bring Sweden a set away from the title.
He had the victory within his sight with a break point in the ninth game of the fourth set that Boetsch fended off to stay alive and provide a game-changer! The Frenchman won the tie break 7-5 and it was all-or-nothing fifth set to determine Davis Cup champion.
Kulti struggled more and more as the encounter progressed, unable to sit during the breaks and standing near his bench in desperate tries to recover at least some of his energy. He had an enormous opportunity to grab the triumph in the 14th game and become a national hero, with three match points up for grabs on the return.
Arnaud stayed composed and repelled them all (two service winners), leveling the score at 7-7 to extend this already epic battle. Boetsch broke in the 17th game and was now serving for the win at 9-8. Everything was over when Kulti sent a forehand long in that 18th game, allowing France to start a massive celebration.
Yannick Noah did something amazing to make this final even better after a great gesture, taking Stefan Edberg to his shoulders and making a lap of honor around the court with a multiple Grand Slam champion who had to end his career in undesired circumstances just two days earlier.