Davis Cup 2013: Murray takes first blood but Dodig levels tie
Andy Murray gives Great Britain the lead in their Davis Cup play-off but Croatia level the tie at the end of the first day of action in Umag
The only time that the GB Davis Cup team had played Croatia before was in 2007, and the combined efforts of Andy Murray and Tim Henman—with a little help from Jamie Murray in the doubles—took them into the World Group.
That was also the last time that GB played in the top tier of the biggest team competition in sport, but they entered this World Group Play-off—away on the clay of Croatia—with very strong hopes of repeating that win.
Once again, Murray was back in the squad and backed up in singles by the in-form Dan Evans, fresh from his breakthrough US Open run to his first Grand Slam third round. In doubles, the picture also looked good, with doubles specialists Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray on board and with Fleming and Murray, playing together for the first time, having reached the Montreal Masters final last month.
Plenty of options, then, for team captain Leon Smith. He, it was, who gave Evans what proved to be an inspiring leg-up in GB’s April victory over Russia. Having lost both singles rubbers in five-sets on the opening day, victory in the doubles kept GB in the tie. James Ward came back from two sets to one down and then Evans defied a huge ranking difference of 245 places to win in straight sets against Evgeny Donskoy, to complete GB’s first 0-2 comeback since 1930.
Murray was making his first appearance since his quarter-final exit in New York, though that gave him time to join the squad in Umag at the start of the week to begin the transition back to clay—not easy, considering he missed the French Open with back problems.
He played what for many was a surprise opponent—though with key players Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic missing, the Croatian choices were limited. The 16-year-old Borna Coric, though young, was nevertheless the No1 junior in the world on the back of winning the US Open junior title. And while Coric had never played a five-set match before, he had already made a strong showing on the senior tour with three Futures titles this year, the last two this August.
The 525-ranked Croatian was also more than familiar with Murray’s game: He trains in London under a British coach, and claims Murray as his idol on the tour.
Conversely, Murray may have been taken by surprise in the early stages of the rubber, as the slight but already tall Coric stayed with Murray through the opening games with some impressive tennis. Indeed, he earned a break point on the Murray serve in the very first game.
It took the best of Murray to survive an extraordinary 57-shot rally that had both eating up the whole court. A winner from Murray held off the challenge but brought a huge smile to Coric’s face. This was just what he had hoped for.
Murray stamped out the threat after six minutes with a big serve to hold, but the long and testing rallies continued. Murray’s tactics—wide angles, drop shots and lobs, and varied serving—constantly tested the stamina of the youngster, but even so, Coric fought off two break points in the fourth game.
By 2-2, they had already played for 23 minutes, but Murray began to deploy drop shots to ever greater effect for another break chance, and another. Coric chased them down, and the following lobs, but he surely could not keep up the pace.
Coric dispelled such a thought to turn the tables on Murray. He pulled him back from a 40-0 lead to earn a break point with a drop winner worthy of the world No3 himself. But there was still no break: after 38 minutes, they stayed at 3-3.
But come Coric’s next serve, the tactics had taken their toll: Murray broke to love and served out the set, 6-3. And now Murray settled into that leg-draining rhythm, running Coric ragged to extend his run of games to nine and a 6-0 second set.
Murray continued to ply his tennis with drop shots, and though Coric managed to reach many of them, but could do little damage when he got there. Even so, he broke the run of games to hold his first serve in the third set.
Suddenly, in the fourth game, Murray found himself facing two break points as Coric found a second wind, and the Briton went down 3-1. He afterwards admitted to a loss of concentration—and insisted that his back was not causing a problem—and the scoreline concurred. He broke to go on a five-game run that sealed the first rubber, 6-3.
Murray admitted that the start had been testing: “The first five or six games were tough. I wanted to make the points long, make it challenging for him…He was solid, he fought for every point. When he gets physically stronger, he’s going to be a very tough player.”
Of that there is no doubt. Coric showed great composure, energy and variety—and some impressive touch—in sticking with one of the best in the world. What’s more, he seemed to enjoy every minute, a sign that there is much more to come as he evolves from junior to senior tennis.
In watching the second rubber, it was worth remembering that Coric has seven years on the late-maturing Evans, who was also winning Future events earlier this season. But Evans’ surge in form, strength and confidence since that spring Davis Cup tie—as well as taking out the seeded Kei Nishikori at the US Open—were to be sorely tested by the experience, power and talent of Croatia’s top player, Ivan Dodig.
Ranked No35 to Evans’ 149, the muscular Dodig has taken some big scalps over the years, not least in also reaching the third round in New York—Fernando Verdasco and Nikolay Davydenko—before meeting Rafael Nadal. And his aggressive game had Evans on the back foot almost at once.
He broke in the seventh game, and again in the ninth, to take the first set, 6-3, for the loss of just three points on serve.
Again in the early stages of the second, Evans lived with the bigger man, but the Dodig serve kept him at bay, now with a 135 mph down-the-centre serve, now a wide winner into the sideline corner. He broke in the sixth for a 4-2 lead, and a frustrated Evans saw Dodig pound into the net time and again, showing both great movement and lovely touch when he got there. Dodig switched his attack to the back of the court on Evans’ serve with two forehand winners, and converted another break point with a backhand for a 6-2 set.
In the third set, Evans’ resistance lasted again until mid-set, with the power and pace of the Dodig game proving too much. Dodig returned serve strongly to draw errors from the Briton, 21 of them in the set, and took the vital break, 4-2. A flourishing serve-and-volley finish sealed the rubber, 6-3.
For Evans, carrying a greater expectation but also facing a seasoned, strong opponent in front of an away crowd, the task was always a tough one. It will, though, be interesting to see how he handles the young Croat star when it comes to Sunday—especially if the tie is level.
The British team must be favoured, however, to take a lead into the final day, and Murray must expect to beat Dodig, just as he did in their only previous encounter, a straight-sets win at last year’s US Open. If either match goes to Croatia, though, the tie will once again be on Evans’ shoulders.