Andy Murray was never in contention to join the squad: hip surgery in Australia saw to that. But there were high hopes for Kyle Edmund, who rose to a career-high 26 after reaching his first Major semi-final in Melbourne. The trouble for the Brit was that he picked up a hip injury in losing that semi-final, and while he travelled to Marbella days before the draw was made, and trained alongside his team-mates as they worked their way into their clay shoes, he admitted it would be touch and go whether he was ready.
Then came confirmation: His name was not on the draw sheet. It would be down to two British debutants to lead the British campaign. First up was the 24-year-old No165, Liam Broady, followed by No114, 22-year-old Cameron Norrie. The doubles rubber would be contested by Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot.
But if all that was not a tough enough scenario, GB would have to take on one of the strongest teams in the world, Spain, on their favourite clay in front of a home crowd.
For even without the injured Rafael Nadal, Spain fielded a team in which all five nominees are ranked in the top 40, and come the draw, they did not even think it necessary to put No10 Pablo Carreno Busta onto court for their singles ties. He would join Feliciano Lopez in doubles, leaving a quality man like David Ferrer on the bench. The hard graft was left to No21 Albert Ramos-Vinolas, and No23 Roberto Bautista Agut.
Spain, then, remained not just the favourite to win this tie but one of the favourites for the title. Five times they had won the title since 2000, and when it came to clay, had won 27 of their last 28 ties.
Broady was broken quickly, but with some raucous British support behind him, broke back for 2-2. Ramos-Vinolas was slow to get going, but after some stern words from captain Sergi Bruguera to gee him up, the Spaniard earned three more break points and took the advantage, 4-3. He closed out the first set with a break to love and looking far more like the top-20 player who made the final of the Monte-Carlo Masters last year.
However, the second set saw an early repeat, and an early Spanish break negated by a love break back. This time, though, Broady road his momentum with some aggressive play—off his forehand in particular—to hold to love, 4-4. He worked two break chances in the ninth by the same means, but could not convert. Instead, Ramos-Vinolas hit straight back and did break, 6-4. Spain led by two rubbers.
Yet Ramos-Vinolas was patchy and Broady stayed positive, coming to the net occasionally to finish. There were break chances, but they edged to 4-4, and now Broady seemed to have a limp, but after a quick massage between games, he conjured up some magic—a net attack, a sliced backhand winner—and got the Brits on their feet.
The 30-year-old Ramos-Vinolas had never won a live Davis Cup rubber, and he looked tight. Sure enough, Broady broke him, roared, and would serve for the set, but he too tightened, double faulted, conceded the break. A tie-break would decide it.
Broady continued his bold tactics, getting the first point with a volley, but was bombarded at the net on the next point. Yet he hurtled to the net again for a winner, and worked a set point with a remarkable serve and volley play. At the key moment, though, the Spaniard reeled off three fine shots in a row for set and match, 7-6(6).
Broady afterwards told BBC Radio 5 Live:
“I’m pleased I did myself proud and I fought to the end, but I’m absolutely gutted I didn’t win. The thing to remember is that these guys are only human. I know they’ve got fantastic records on the clay but they are beatable.”
Norrie was perhaps even more of an unknown quantity for the Spanish, though the end of 2017 should have lifted him onto their radar: A career-high 110 on the back of three Challenger titles from four finals, plus the second round of the US Open via qualifying.
Like Broady, the left-hander immediately showed he was willing to break the super-fit clay rhythm of Roberto Bautista Agut by holding the baseline and then coming to the net or throwing in some killer drop shots. The 23-ranked Spaniard had eight titles to his name, one already this year, and his wiry, counter-punching style has worn down his share of top-10 players, but he was slow to respond to Norrie’s fast start.
The Briton broke, then held for 3-1. The eighth game, though, saw Norrie double fault twice, and he was broken back, 4-4. Bautista Agut lifted his level to sweep four straight games and the set, 6-4.
The Spaniard, now looking nimble and focused, rode that momentum into the second set, 3-0, before Norrie held, and the Briton then held off Bautista Agut with the same variety that had served him well in the opener. The Spaniard, though, held for the second set, 6-3.
Norrie dug in again at the start of the third, immediately cancelling out an opening break, 1-1, but facing three break points in the fifth game, he double faulted, and trailed once more, despite trying to take the attack to Spain. However, the Briton was rewarded for his efforts around the net with another break, 3-3. He pumped, captain Leon Smith smiled broadly, the British crowd erupted.
And he built on that adrenalin to save two break points with a couple of great volley touches. Not done with holding, he broke the Spaniard again, and served out the set with aplomb, 6-3.
He had a spring in his step in the fourth, too, especially after fending off three break points and countless deuces to stay tough at 2-2. And as often happens, a player who fails to cash in on a big opportunity can have a let-down in the next game. Sure enough, Bautista Agut was broken, 3-2, and then had heavy treatment to his legs.
Norrie was not done there either, and continued to ply his craft all around the court, broke again, and served it out, 6-2. Almost every game was going to deuce, and perhaps appropriately, the only part of the arena still bathed in sun was that filled by British fans. With three and a half hours down, the lights were on and they headed into the decider.
Still Norrie’s level did not drop, and the Spanish bench could only shake their heads and urge on their man. But the Briton broke in the third game, and resisted huge pressure to hold, 4-2—and then broke again with Bautista Agut apparently out of ideas. A minute or so later, and he had the biggest win of his career, 6-2, after more than four hours.
To get the scale of his match into perspective for Norrie, he had never even played a four-set match before, let alone a five-setter, and never played a Davis Cup tie. He had no pro expertise on clay, and now he had beaten a top-20 Spaniard with the unlikely strategy of forward-moving, attacking tennis packed with volleys, drops and more.
Asked if this was the best day of his career, he had no hesitation: “100 percent!”
So the favourites, with so much talent at the their disposal, will now have to find something special against Grand-Slam-doubles-champion quality in Jamie Murray, ably supported by the considerable doubles expertise of Dom Inglot.
The joy of Davis Cup: it brings out the best, no matter the odds.
Australia levelled with Germany, 1-1
Pat Rafter Arena, Brisbane, Australia (hard outdoor)
Belgium leads Hungary, 2-0
Country Hall du Sart-Tilman, Liège, Belgium (hard indoor)
Canada levelled with Croatia, 1-1
Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt, Osijek, Croatia (clay indoor)
France levelled with The Netherlands, 1-1
Halle Olympique, Albertville, France (hard indoor)
Japan levelled with Italy, 1-1
Morioka Takaya Arena, Morioka, Japan (hard indoor)
Kazakhstan lead Switzerland, 2-0
National Tennis Centre, Astana, Kazakhstan (hard indoor)
USA leads Serbia, 1-0 (latest)
Sportski Centar Cair, Nis, Serbia (clay indoor)
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford