Davis Cup review: Murray, Djokovic seal QF places in high-octane weekend
Marianne Bevis takes a look back at an entertaining weekend of Davis Cup action, with the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in action
Certainly the absence of defending champions Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka for Switzerland left a vast hole as this year’s Davis Cup got under way.
Croatia without their injured US Open champion Marin Cilic did not help. Nor did a missing Tomas Berdych, leading light in the Czech Republic’s back-to-back wins, help his nation’s cause as he focused, this time around, on personal targets.
Then there was the gap left by Spain’s slip from the World Group last year. This century’s most prolific winner nation, with five titles, could not sustain its imposing presence without the efforts of its charismatic clutch of top-20 players—among them Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez—and competes in Group 1 in July for the first time since 1996, away to Russia.
But the joy of Davis Cup is that somewhere among the 33 ties played out in the century-old world cup of tennis, there are stories of passion and commitment, of old rivalries between countries and new ones between players, of underdogs doing the unexpected and of the unparalleled buzz of patriotic fervour.
Just ask Andy Murray, who roared to the heavens, then to the fans, as he scored the decisive win against John Isner to take GB past its oldest rivals, the USA, for the second year in a row. That the points he picked up took him back to No4 just in time for the big Indian Wells Masters was a bonus: He simply reveled in being part of this team effort.
Murray’s two tough wins were clearly vital in GB’s campaign, but the odds were in his favour. It would, rather, be his colleagues who played David to the USA’s Goliath, so it is James Ward and the GB doubles team that earns a spot among the top highlights of Davis Cup Round 1.
• James Ward, ranked No111, has a habit of rising to the occasion where the Davis Cup is concerned. Last year, playing away and on clay against the USA, he overturned the rankings with a comeback from two sets to one down against Sam Querrey, taking GB to a 2-0 lead into Day 2. This year, he took on an even bigger mountain in Isner, and fought back from a 0-2 deficit to win after almost five hours, 15-13 in the fifth set.
The next day, the duo of Dom Inglot and Jamie Murray almost sealed the deal with a similar comeback from 0-2 down against the most successful doubles pair ever, the Bryan brothers. The Brits finally lost 7-9 in the fifth. But it completed a team performance that will surely buoy up the GB squad ahead of an even tougher quarter-final against last year’s runners-up, France.
• And so to another famed rivalry, this time in South America where Brazil and Argentina are still deadlocked at two rubbers apiece. The first rubber was a five-set, five-hour marathon, going to Joao Souza for the away nation in Buenos Aires. The second was a modest four-setter that levelled the tie at 1-1. Brazil sailed to an easy doubles win, so the tie could be decided by the hard-working Sousa against the higher-ranked Leonardo Mayer.
Remarkably, this match too would be determined by a 15-13 fifth set, which itself came on the back of a gruelling 7-6, 7-6, 5-7, 5-7 scoreline. Mayer finally halted the Sousa comeback, after 6hrs 42mins—the longest Davis Cup singles rubber in history and the second longest singles match of all time.
The teams were stopped by bad light, and have returned today currently level at a set apiece in the fifth rubber.
• This weekend saw another repeat clash from last year, between Canada and Japan. In 2014, Japan dominated the visitors who were without their top players Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil. This year, on home soil, the Canadians reversed the result, with the doubles skills of Wimbledon champion Pospisil a big bonus: He lost his opening singles to No4 ranked Kei Nishikori but joined forces with Daniel Nestor to score a five-set win in doubles and then took the deciding fifth rubber in singles too.
But within this tie, an individual rivalry was also played out. Two of the big stars of the new generation, Nishikori and Raonic, have tracked one another into the top 10, and this was their sixth meeting in 10 months. Not only that, almost every match has gone the distance: their first this year in Brisbane took three tie-breaks, with Raonic the victor. Their fourth rubber in Vancouver was no different, a five-setter that ended with Raonic claiming three points more out of 259 but losing the match, 6-4.
• The underdog award goes to Kazakhstan, a country that has never boasted the biggest stars and the highest ranked among its number but has consistently punched above its weight. It did not join the World Group until 2011 but has reached the quarter-finals for the last two years, even pushing a Federer-Wawrinka flushed Switzerland to a fifth rubber last year.
Italy was a tough call for the first round: It could call upon three top-50 players who have been enjoying stand-out seasons: Fabio Fognini beat Nadal on clay to reach the Rio final; Andreas Seppi beat Federer in Australia and went on to the Zagreb final; Simone Bolelli beat Raonic in Marseille.
And yet the No54-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin beat Bolelli in straight sets, did the same against Seppi to level the tie at 2-2 and then the 28-year-old 130-ranked Aleksandr Nedovyesov beat Fognini from two sets to one down in a dramatic clincher, 7-5, after 3hrs 41mins.
And so the low-profile Kazakhstan reaches the quarters for the third straight year, the only country aside from France to do so among the eight who will face off come July.
• The Swiss team without Federer and Wawrinka came in for much comment, and even more so when the highest remaining player, at 292, Yann Marti, left the squad after being dropped from the opening singles. Huge credit, then, to 22-year-old No344 Henri Laaksonen for winning both his singles rubbers, both against higher ranked Belgians, one from 0-2 down, the other from 1-2 down—playing a total of 7 hours. It would be to no avail as injured David Goffin came back in time to win the deciding rubber.
• Youth will have its day, and Australia will breathe a sigh of relief. Teenager Thanasi Kokkinakis came back from two sets down to beat No31-ranked Lukas Rosol. Then 22-year-old Bernard Tomic beat 21-year-old Jiri Vesely in straight sets. One of Davis Cup’s most prolific winners Lleyton Hewitt, now 34, could not carry his nation through in the doubles, leaving it to Tomic to finish the job in straights. Australia has won the trophy 28 times but this was its first round-one win since 2006.
• Germany’s struggle against France in Davis Cup has become the stuff of legend: its losing streak extends to 77 years. The challenge remains formidable for all-comers, as France has five players in the top 30, and their two top-20 men Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils did the honours in this tie. But the lowest ranked German, Jan-Lennard Struff, made a brilliant Davis Cup debut by taking Simon, ranked 60 places higher, to a four-and-a-half-hour five-setter, finally losing 8-10 in the fifth. But by Sunday the tie was France’s.
• Finally, a shout-out for the world No1, Novak Djokovic, who credited his part in Serbia’s victory in 2010 with the inspiration to build his most dominant season yet: 10 titles in 2011. This weekend, he won singles and doubles without dropping a set and now sits precisely 4,000 points ahead of the field in the rankings. He and Serbia are clearly in a very good place, especially with Viktor Troicki back in the saddle as Serbia’s No2.
Round 1 World Group results
GB beat USA, 3-2
Kazakhstan beat Italy, 3-2
Australia beat Czech Republic, 3-2
France beat Germany, 3-2
Canada beat Japan, 3-2
Belgium beat Switzerland, 3-2
Serbia beat Croatia, 5-0
Argentina vs Brazil to complete: 2-2, 1-1
Quarter-finals, 17-19 July
GB at home to France
Australia home to Kazakhstan
Brazil/Argentina vs Serbia
Belgium at home to Canada