By Matt Roberts
Andy Murray must have strong shoulders. After all, for so long he has carried the weight of the nation on them as the sole stalwart and spearhead of British tennis. But last weekend was different. Andy may have been the star once again but Britain’s Davis Cup victory over the United States was a true team effort.
The last 16 tie was a repeat of last year’s encounter which Britain won in San Diego. This time, the quartet of Andy and Jamie Murray, James Ward and Dom Inglot, were hoping to record back-to-back successes against the Americans for the first time since 1905.
The Emirates Arena in Glasgow was packed to the rafters as Andy Murray faced Donald Young on the opening day. The prodigal son was greeted with rapturous applause. This, after all, was to be his first match in Scotland for four years. And he didn’t disappoint. After breaking Young in the very first game, the Scot went from strength to strength. Despite dropping the third set, Murray was never troubled as he got the British team off to the perfect start with a straightforward win.
A victory for Murray was always likely but few could have predicted the drama that was to unfold in the second singles match on Friday as James Ward, ranked 111 in the world, faced John Isner. The giant American has had a difficult past six months and has seen his ranking slip to number 20. But surely he would see off the challenge, however brave, from Ward?
For the first couple of sets it seemed as though the American was in control as he continually frustrated Ward by firing down ace after ace to keep his opponent at bay and take a two set lead.
The match changed midway through the third set though as two successive passing shot winners of scintillating brilliance helped the Londoner finally break serve at 3-2. When he got the chance to win the set he did not blink.
With Isner weary and Ward energised, there was a sense that the 7,700 strong crowd in Glasgow could be about to witness something special. The momentum swung even more heavily in Ward’s favour when he levelled the rubber at two sets all after winning the fourth set tiebreak.
Ward dominated the deciding set and he managed to carve out five match points only to be denied each time by his 6ft 10in opponent who, despite playing poorly from the baseline, was still able to call upon his ever-reliable serve to get out of danger.
Isner is known as the marathon man after his historic 70-68 final set battle against Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. With no tiebreak in the deciding set, the games ticked slowly by, prompting memories of that match at SW19.
Finally, at 14-13 in Ward’s favour and with the clock edging towards five hours, Isner folded. He went wide with a forehand to gift Ward three more match points. The Briton only needed one this time, sparking wild celebrations among the British team and fans.
Ward had repeated his heroics from last year’s tie in San Diego. Only this time it was even better. There, he had produced a devastatingly good late charge to see off Sam Querrey. But this time he played with stunning consistency throughout against an established member of the top 20.
Jim Courier, the American captain, aptly described the pressure of playing in the Davis Cup, saying: “Some people rise to the occasion and some people shrink from it”. Ward certainly rose to the occasion on Friday. Isner, meanwhile, seemed paralysed with fear.
Those two victories had given Great Britain the perfect platform. The big question now was whether Captain Leon Smith would pick Andy to play alongside his brother in the potentially decisive doubles rubber.
The USA have the most successful doubles team of all time in their ranks: the Bryan Brothers. With 106 titles, 16 grand slams, Olympic gold and a formidable Davis Cup record, the mirror twins have won it all.
In the end, Smith sensibly opted to rest Andy. While many of the fans were hoping for the two sets of brothers to face off, they were instead treated to a classic between the Bryans and Jamie Murray and Inglot.
Initially, the class of the Bryan Brothers told as they overwhelmed their opponents to win the first two sets in under an hour.
But despite playing together for the first time since their junior days, the British pair combined well and looked at ease in each other’s company on court. As the match moved into the third set, they grew in confidence and began their remarkable comeback.
By breaking serve in an intense fourth game of the third set, the Brits grabbed the momentum and extended the match. With Dom Inglot’s huge serve proving unbreakable and Murray showing great dynamism at the net, the Brits then saved match points and took the contest to a fifth set after prevailing in a dramatic fourth set tiebreak.
In a tense fifth set the Bryans raised their game. After capitalising on a couple of errors to earn the decisive break at 7-7, Mike Bryan then confidently served out the match to keep the USA’s slender hopes alive.
Even in defeat, it was a superb effort by Murray and Inglot to push the Bryan brothers to the limit. The USA may have won that battle but Britain were winning the war and the momentum gained on the opening day had been sustained.
On Sunday, a well-rested Andy Murray began his reverse singles match against Isner knowing that victory would see Britain through to the Quarter Finals. He had to weather an early storm as Isner came out swinging. With a clear, aggressive game plan, the American earned seven break points – three of them set points – in the opening set. But he was unable to capitalise on those opportunities as the set slipped away in a tiebreak. From there, it was plain sailing for Murray as Isner’s steadily rising number of unforced errors made life easier for the Scot who won the second set 6-3.
Isner threw everything at Andy in the third set but Murray’s defences proved impenetrable. On his third match point, Murray hit a beautifully precise, swinging ace to seal the match and the tie. Cue a deafening roar from the home crowd. It was time for the Proclaimers to be blared out over the PA system one final time.
The scale of Britain’s recent achievements in the Davis Cup must not be overlooked. Leon Smith has done a remarkable job as Captain, leading the team from the brink of Euro African Zone 3 in July 2010 to successive World Group Quarter Finals. Significantly, victory over the USA also guarantees that Britain will be in the World Group again next year.
So how far can Britain go? A mouth-watering last eight tie against the French awaits in July.
France, last year’s runners up and with seven players in the top 40, represent an even bigger obstacle than the USA. But victory for Britain, who will host the tie, isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
Murray has proved that he is one of the very best players in the world. With Nadal’s Spain seeking promotion back to the World Group, Switzerland already out having been denied the services of Federer and Wawrinka, and Djokovic’s Serbia on the other side of the draw, Britain’s leader will be the favourite against whoever he plays.
Moreover, James Ward always seems to perform superbly in the Davis Cup and with a win against Isner under his belt, he will be confident of being able to topple a number of France’s best players. What’s more, Leon Smith appears to have found a doubles partnership, in the form of Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot, who can compete with the very best in the world.
There is a lot wrong with British tennis but the weekend victory was a reminder that it isn’t all doom and gloom. The atmosphere inside the Emirates Arena in Glasgow was special and the camaraderie on display between teammates was great to witness. It remains to be seen how well this team can do but there is a real sense that with Andy Murray, a brilliant supporting cast and home advantage, they could go even further in this prestigious competition.
Photographs: commons.wikimedia, wikipedia, wikipedia