Davis Cup 2015: Murray and Ward, Simon and Gasquet lead 21st GB-France showdown
Great Britain and France face off in the Davis Cup this week - and both teams are ready to come out with all guns blazing
Of the 126 nations taking part in the world’s biggest annual international team event, the title race is down to just eight, and only half of them have won the ‘World Cup’ of tennis before.
Top of the list, at 28 titles, is Australia, with Great Britain and France boasting nine wins apiece. The other nation, Serbia, famously won its first and only title in 2010, but this small, proud nation is one of the World Group’s prime examples of how difficult it can be to stay the course to the bitter end when that success is built on the shoulders of the best players in the world.
For having among your number the greatest in the world is a double-edge sword. Ask Switzerland, which won its first title last year courtesy of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka: Remove one, and the burden become almost unbearable for a man going deep into Grand Slam and Masters tournaments through the whole season.
Such is Serbia’s dilemma, now that their star Novak Djokovic is not just world No1 but Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and owner of four Masters titles this year. He was there for their 2010 victory and helped them to the quarters this year, but cannot make the long trip to Argentina in so short a time after such a demanding season.
But then Argentina is also without its main men, Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Monaco, both sidelined with injury: Suddenly the greater depth of Serbian tennis looks enough to make the tie winnable.
Canada, who scored a famous win over Japan to seal a quarter-final place this year are missing the two young men who got them there: Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil are both injured, and all at once, Belgium, with one top-50 player in David Goffin, looks the stronger team.
But when it comes to the highly-anticipated tie between one of the oldest pairs of rivals in the Davis Cup, Great Britain and France, both teams are ready to come out with all guns blazing.
They have moved just a few miles down the road from Wimbledon to the prestigious grass of Queen’s Club. It is where, less than a month ago, the world No3 Andy Murray won his fourth Aegon Championships, and he arrives fresh from a semi-final run at the All England Club.
But it’s a long time since he was joined in the Davis Cup squad by another top-100 player: This time he is.
James Ward has done sterling service as GB’s No2, beating players ranked as much as a 100 places above himself, most recently John Isner, 15-13, in the first-round tie against the USA. However, after a third-round run at Wimbledon, he plays at a career-high 89.
The GB squad is completed, in an identical line-up to the one ranged against the USA, by doubles specialists Dominic Inglot and Jamie Murray, and the latter also rides a wave of grass form and confidence after reaching the Wimbledon doubles final, albeit with a different partner.
Captain Leon Smith, though, stressed the importance of every cog in the British wheel: “Everyone’s going to be important, that’s the bottom line. If you go on paper, then of course the doubles becomes the obvious one but you just can’t do that, every match is too difficult, everyone’s got a chance.
“But everyone’s played well, the whole team—both teams have played well. And in Davis Cup before, we’ve seen things happen, upsets of rankings. It’s very different playing for your country than for an individual, and some players do that better than others. We have to hope that on the day we can get three points on the board. I’m sure we can, but it’s going to be very difficult.”
For if the GB squad chose grass with a view to having an advantage over their old rivals, one look at the last few weeks for the French squad would put them right.
France did not even have to depend on the line-up that got them to the quarters, so deep are the riches that French tennis can mine.
Their current top man is No11 Gilles Simon, here at his highest ranking in three years and turning on its head any presumption that he is not a grass expert. After a semi run at Queen’s, he made the quarters in Nottingham and then the same at Wimbledon, beating Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych in the process.
He is backed by Richard Gasquet, ranked 13 and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon.
Meanwhile in the wings is No12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has plenty of grass form at Queen’s and Wimbledon on his resume, and reached the semis in Roland Garros last month.
Their depth in doubles is just as great: Nicolas Mahut is a Grand Slam doubles finalist, won the Queen’s doubles title this year and, to prove his grass worth, won the singles title in s-Hertogenbosch, winning eight matches to do so.
As captain Arnaud Clement said: “You know for our team, to play on grass, hard court, indoor court or clay court it’s almost the same. My players are good on all surfaces and reach finals and won tournaments on all surfaces all over the world. So for us, I think they chose grass because it’s the best surface for Great Britain.”
The message was clear: They are here to win. And make no mistake, this is a rivalry that goes back a long way—over 100 years. Yet while GB won their first three ties in 1912, 1914 and 1919, and now led their head-to-head 11-9, France had won the last two ties, one of them in France, one in Great Britain—indeed at Queen’s—and both in a 5-0 clean sweep.
What’s more, Great Britain has not won the title since 1936, while the No3 seeds France won in 2001 and have twice been finalists since. And it’s almost 30 years since France played anywhere other than the World Group.
In front of the British press, they looked anything but perturbed or tense. Clement summed it up: “We have a lot of history like it is for Great Britain. I really think for tennis it’s good to have GB in the World Group and now fighting for the title. [But] it’s part of the history of our sport, in our country… we grew up with this on TV and all the players here have memories of Davis Cup when they were young.”
And he has many choices: “There are a lot of options, and that’s what I want to have as a captain. We can change the plan… It’s hard to leave players out, especially when all your players are so motivated to play!”
Nice problem to have, but it will cut no ice when these two adversaries line up come Friday: It will be tight, will almost certainly go the distance—and could take GB to the semi-finals for the first time since 1981.
The draw to determine who plays whom when the tie gets under way at 12:30 BST at Queen’s Club this Friday, will be made in London at 16:00 BST tomorrow (Thursday).