Davis Cup 2015: Pressure falls on Murray as Ward loses opener to Gilles Simon

James Ward suffers a 6-4 6-4 6-1 loss to Gilles Simon as France take an early lead over Great Britain at Queen's Club

It is one of the oldest rivalries in over 100 years of Davis Cup history, bringing together two of the oldest members of the famous ‘World Cup of Tennis’.

Great Britain and the USA were the founding members in 1900, but come 1905, France—along with two other quarter-finalists this weekend, Belgium and Australasia, plus Austria, swelled the competition.

The British team first played France in 1912, also in mid July, also on grass—though in the rather less illustrious Folkstone Pleasure Gardens—and on that occasion, the home nation won 4-1. In the semis in 1914, this time at the original Wimbledon grounds, the result was the same. Even in the next, the 1919 final, played on clay on the other side of the Channel, the British won.

With the arrival of the Musketeers—the likes of Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste, Jean Borotra—the honours switched to the French, but come the 1930s, so came Fred Perry and Bunny Austin to take glory even on the hallowed home clay of Roland Garros.

It was an era during which both nations took turns to shine on the international tennis stage, but since then, neither has dominated the other and they arrived at their first meeting since 1992 with GB holding a slender 11-9 margin and with nine titles apiece.

They also boasted the top-ranked players in this weekend’s quarter-finals: GB headed by No3 Andy Murray, France with a formidable line-up of Nos 11, 12 and 13, Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. With such a wealth of options, France picked Simon and Tsonga to take on Murray and James Ward, hero of the first-round tie after taking out John Isner in five sets, and newly into the top 100 after a third-round run at Wimbledon.

But all these players brought great grass credentials to this latest meeting. Murray and Gasquet—who will play the doubles rubber—were both semi-finalists at Wimbledon; Simon reached the quarters at the All England Club and Nottingham and the semis here at Queen’s; Tsonga had two Wimbledon semis to his name and had twice taken Murray to four tough sets. Add in that Murray had beaten Tsonga, over three long sets, in a Queen’s final and a semi-final, and their singles rubber on Day 1 promised to be close.

Before that, though, Ward had to try his luck against the in-form Simon, a backboard of a player who can run the very best into the ground. The two had not played a tour match before but knew each other well, as Ward revealed after the draw was made: “Gilles will be a tough one, I know him better than the others,

“I practise with him a lot and he knows my game just as well as I know his. Just need to stay aggressive and play my game and not worry too much about him.”

Simon concurred, sounding confident in his knowledge of this first opponent.

“I have practised a lot with James the last two years, because our coaches are really close. We shared a lot of practice sessions, so I’m maybe the one who knows him the best in the team. I know what to expect. It’s going to be hard, but I am ready for the match and I’m sure it’s going to be a good one.”

The French crowd was in full voice, as it always is at Davis Cup ties, surely one of the most enthusiastic and well-schooled supporters in the competition. And they soon had good cause to cheer their ‘Gillou’.

Flying in the face of his baseline reputation, he was showing he had no worries about stepping in to attack Ward. He fended off the only break point he would face in the match in his opening service game, coming to the net for a smash winner.

Come the fifth game, his attack combined perfectly with his baseline strength and speed to break the Briton: A long rally opened up the court for Simon to come in for a touch-volley finish, and then he smashed a winner for the break.

Ward held off another break chance in the seventh game, Simon again coming in to the net, but he could not make the break back, and after 43 minutes, France had the opening set, 6-4.

The break came still sooner in the second set, in the third game, and with the French fans also out-performing the British in the packed Queen’s stands, Simon sailed to a 6-4 second set in another 37 minutes.

Now with a real spring in his step, the Frenchman looked confident and rock-solid. He broke in the first and third games of the third set, and finished off the rubber in style with a third break for a 6-1 set in under half an hour.

Ward was very subdued in the press that followed quickly: “It’s very difficult. The guy moves very well, and even when I feel like I’m being aggressive, you can’t go too much because he gets a lot of balls back. It was very windy, it was moving around a lot out there, so to time the ball perfect is very difficult. Sometimes you’re more worried about getting the ball in than trying to go for a winner and close to the line because the margins are small.”

And he did not blame his home London crowd for being less exuberant than the vast Glasgow one at their last tie. He said, bluntly: “Tough to say disappointed… It’s not as though I gave them much to shout about, but yes it’s also difficult to recreate Glasgow, indoors is completely different to outdoors.”

In truth, it was the anticipated result, but immediately put pressure on Murray to draw the tie level when he took on Tsonga. It also put pressure on Murray to perform at his highest level not just once but twice—and perhaps a third time in the doubles rubber if he felt he had enough in the tank after his long and successful grass season—and clay season come to that.

But only time would tell. Ward was straight off to watch, and get some tips on Tsonga should he be called upon to play the deciding rubber against the big and powerful Frenchman come Sunday.

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