IN THE vast concourse in the Flanders Expo that doubles as a food and drink court, the Brits have been given a pub, helpfully signposted as “British pub”. The Belgians, meanwhile, must make do with a café – or, as it is labelled, “Belgian café”.
It seemed appropriate in the early stages yesterday. For, since their star man looked so down and out against Kyle Edmund, those dismayed Belgians were able to drift off to their assigned area for some coffee black and sour enough to match their mood.
The Brits, as tradition dictates, headed to the pub, to celebrate what looked like being a remarkable opening day in this Davis Cup final. But things very quickly changed, as tends to happen in tennis.
So we go into a second day locked, as expected, at 1-1, with Andy Murray overcoming Ruben Bemelmans in straight sets in a surprisingly fiery encounter last night.
This battle was initially played out to a disinterested background burble of noise from the bars – and cafes – next to the court. Many of the spectators had gathered outside to recover after the five-set epic earlier in the day, when young Edmund made it possible to wonder if Britain were going to take an almost unassailable 2-0 lead after the first day. Alas, David Goffin averted what would have been a personal catastrophe by winning the next three sets, at the cost of only three games.
Edmund, the white rose of Yorkshire, wilted in the heat of a fierce battle. It was left to the thistle to put Great Britain back on track, as was written in the script most had already prepared. It was, though, briefly thrilling to imagine the visitors tying up a first Davis Cup win since 1936 on the middle day of the competition, which for a while had seemed a distinct possibility. But the contest now remains firmly in the balance. However, Goffin’s initial struggles yesterday can hardly inspire home confidence ahead of tomorrow’s reverse singles, when he meets Andy Murray in a battle of the best Britain has to offer and the best Belgium has.
Bemelmans, the Belgian No 3, seemed ignited by the same underdog spirit that electrified Edmund earlier in the day, breaking Murray back in the first set to draw level at 2-2. He later led Murray 4-2 in the third as the Scot began to look slightly rattled.
There was also a scare when Murray slipped just beyond the baseline. This was the moment captain Leon Smith had a vision of the muckle great Davis Cup trophy slipping from his grasp.
But Murray picked himself up, went to his chair to dust himself down, and then was jeered as he returned to complete the task of breaking his opponent’s serve. The reaction of the Belgian supporters was significant since it proved that they recognise that their hopes and dreams rest on the form and fitness of someone they needed little encouragement to depict as a bogeyman.
When Murray later complained about a rogue shriek that rang out as he served he was once again whistled at by the home supporters, just as happens when big-name footballers are pitched into a partisan environment. He was then penalised a point for an audible obscenity as things began to get heated, the crowd theatrically shooshing after another Murray request, made to umpire Carlos Ramos, for quiet.
If much of it was pantomime booing it also served as a reminder of how much is at stake. The younger Murray is the piece of grit in the Belgians’ waffle. He is someone who, along with brother Jamie this afternoon, intends to put Team Dunblane into a 2-1 lead after the doubles rubber.
But there was a town in the East Riding of Yorkshire that also looked set to bring out the bunting as Edmund quickly took control of the first match. Beverley was preparing to be put on the map until it suddenly dawned on Edmund that he shouldn’t be leading the player ranked No 16 in the world by two sets to love in his first ever Davis Cup appearance.
He suddenly remembered that he is the world No 100, that he is aged only 20. He suddenly realised this is the Davis Cup final, the world cup of tennis, and he had never played at any stage of the competition, in any zone. A crowd of more than 13,000 were also crammed in all around him.
It was the kind of place where you expected someone of Edmund’s limited experience to choke. But rather, it was the 24-year-old Goffin who looked utterly fazed by the experience. Slightly built in any case, Goffin appeared as though he was carrying the weight of a small western European country on his shoulders – and in a way he was.
The fans, with their drums, French horns and thundersticks, are guaranteed another tense, possibly contentious day today. Christian Arno, who had travelled from Edinburgh, estimated “over half” of the 1,300 strong Team GB support were Scottish. He and his sister, Charlotte, were two for a start, and another three, Dundonian kilt-wearers Robert Swinton, Jimmy Reekie and Alex Barton, who’d picked up tickets for twice face value on the internet, made it five.
Union Jacks were spread across the tribunes, bearing the names of such middle-class “hoods” as “Wortham Tennis Club”. It was a vivid contrast to badges of honour like “Millwall FC” when such flags have been displayed by football supporters in the past. The tennis crew are a different species, of course. “Here we go, here we go, here we go,” is as daring as they get.
They watched a slightly odd opening ceremony, into which the king and queen of Belgium made their entrance to loud techno music, before meeting each of the team members. You’ll Never Walk Alone was also played over the Tannoy – don’t worry, tennis fans have not appropriated this anthem, not yet at least.
This old song’s sentiments have rarely rung truer than today, when two Scots will stride out on court together, hope in all of our hearts.