Milos Raonic's early-season roll came to a halt after favoured France took a 2-1 lead over Canada entering the decisive Davis Cup matches in Vancouver.
Raonic was inserted over Vasek Pospisil as Daniel Nestor's partner in Saturday's pivotal doubles, but the Canadians fell 7-6 (1), 7-6 (2), 6-3 to Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau.
"It was more about Milos having the momentum," Canadian captain Martin Laurendeau said of the decision to change. "It was more about him really feeling it. Sometimes when a guy's on a roll you want to keep that roll going."
It was only the second time Raonic, from Thornhill, Ont., had teamed with the veteran Nestor in Davis Cup doubles play.
But he beat Benneteau in Friday's opening singles and won an ATP tournament in India this year.
The result before a boisterous drum-beating, flag-waving crowd dressed in red and white — some wearing national team hockey sweaters — means the tie will hinge on Sunday's reverse singles.
The scheduled pairings are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked No. 6 in the world, against 29th-ranked Raonic and Vernon, B.C., native Pospisil facing Benneteau in the final match of the best-of-five tie.
Pospisil is 115th in singles while Benneteau is 35th in ATP rankings. Laurendeau said he wouldn't be surprised if France inserts Gael Monfils, 13th ranked on the Tour, into Sunday's matches.
The Canadians had three break points in the first set but couldn't convert and played poorly in both tiebreakers that gave the French control of the match.
"We didn't get enough first serves in in the tiebreak," said the 39-year-old Nestor, a Toronto native who made his 41st Davis Cup appearance for Canada.
"They just started well. They were the better team from start to finish. They kept a lot of returns in the court.
"I had a couple of break points early that I shanked, which is inexcusable. They were the only two chances so ... but at the end of the day they were convincingly the better team."
The French tandem converted a higher percentage of points at the net and had only 18 unforced errors compared to the Canadians' 28 in the match, which lasted two hours 37 minutes.
Raonic, who bested Benneteau 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 on Friday, saw a different opponent on Saturday.
"He was returning well," Raonic said. "Before I hit my serve he was picking one side and a lot of times he was guessing right.
"But not only was he guessing right, when he was getting there he was hitting the ball really well. It just wears down on you when you feel the pressure and it's obviously hard to serve as well."
Raonic, who has beaten top 10 players before, must now defeat Tsonga in a battle of big hitters in Sunday's opening singles match if Canada is to stay alive.
The winner of the tie will face the United States in the quarter-finals in April. The loser is shunted to a relegation playoff to stay in the World Group.
"I know I can beat them playing within myself," the 21-year-old Raonic said of facing top opponents. "I don't have to come up with something amazing. I just have to play good tennis. I'm anxious and obviously it's going to be something tough but I'll have to deal with things during the match and I'll have to dig down as well."
Both teams had three break points in the first set but failed to convert until the French dominated the 7-1 tiebreaker.
The left-handed Llodra, ranked fifth in the world in doubles, clinched the tiebreak with a cross-court winner after earlier serving an ace and delivering a backhand volley at the net.
The Canadians fared little better in the second-set tiebreak that Llodra ended with his eighth ace of the match.
Llodra was the first to win a break point in the third set when his backhand volley at the net was too hot for Raonic to handle and the French took a 2-1 lead on Nestor's serve.
They broke Raonic at 15-40 in the final game with Benneteau's return beyond the young Canadian's reach.
"We had to be ready on the good moments, especially on the tiebreak," said Llodra. "Sometimes it happens and today in the two tiebreaks we were playing so well. We know against these guys we have to play solid. If we have one chance, we have to take it and today that was the key."