GREAT Britain’s Davis Cup team are back on the verge of tennis’ elite after a remarkable victory against the odds yesterday.
Without Andy Murray and against a good Russia side, Britain were huge underdogs at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena even before Dan Evans and James Ward both lost five-set matches on Friday. Coming back from 2-0 down is a rare feat – Britain had not done it for 83 years – but Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray kept the tie alive with victory in the doubles on Saturday and Ward and Evans overcame huge ranking gaps to complete the job in stunning fashion yesterday.
Murray has seemed a lone beacon in the men’s game for a long time, yet this was a victory both for tennis’ journeymen and for impressive captain Leon Smith. When the Scot took over from John Lloyd in 2010, Britain’s first tie was a relegation play-off against Turkey to avoid going down to Europe/Africa Zone Group III. They survived and have made big strides since, largely without Murray, who is expected to return to the side for the World Group play-offs in September.
Ward and Evans made up a combined rankings deficit of 392 places, with Ward fighting back from two sets to one down to defeat Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 before Evans crushed Evgeny Donskoy 6-4, 6-4, 6-1.
Smith said: “I think it’s outstanding and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in my time in British tennis. What James did today was a phenomenal effort. To beat Tursunov in five after what he did on Friday, that’s a hell of an effort to come back from that.
“He deserves a lot of praise. We wouldn’t have had that last match if James hadn’t dug out an incredible victory where he went through the pain barrier mentally, physically and emotionally. And then of course what Dan’s come out and done. He bossed that match from start to finish. We said at the start of the week, and I wasn’t joking, I genuinely thought we could cause an upset.”
Evans was not even in the team originally but Smith had a change of heart on Wednesday and dropped Jamie Baker to bring the 22-year-old in. Evans’ talent has never been in question but he admitted after losing to Tursunov on Friday that he is languishing at 325 in the rankings because he does not work hard enough and is not prepared to sacrifice his life outside tennis.
Smith went with his “gut feeling” having seen what Evans could do against Slovakia last year, when he won a decisive fifth rubber, and the Birmingham player simply gave Donskoy, a fast-improving player ranked 80 in the world, no chance.
Evans drew on the experience of the Slovakia tie, saying: “It definitely helped. It was a completely different match.
“I expected to have to do quite a lot more running than I did and it was surprising how the match went, I think for both of us. Obviously I was really happy with that and I played really well. On Friday I played well and I’ve been hitting the ball well all week so I knew I was there or thereabouts. I thought we were so unlucky on Friday to come away two five-set matches down. We deserved a bit of luck.”
Ward had never won a match in Group I and his and Britain’s hopes were hanging by a thread when, after a good start by the home player, Tursunov moved two sets to one in front. But, helped by some untimely double faults from his opponent, Ward seized his chance and did not look back.
The 26-year-old put the match up alongside his first-round Wimbledon victory over Spain’s Pablo Andujar last year as the best of his life, especially after Friday’s heartbreaking loss. He said: “It’s got to be up to there as one or two. Wimbledon’s always special because it’s the biggest tournament in the world. He was a top-30 player as well so that was special but this is just as much. It would have been very tough to take two five-set losses in a weekend, but it could have happened. I was two sets to one down against a guy who’s been 20 in the world.”
Ward also praised Smith, saying: “He believes in me a lot and I’m grateful to him for the opportunity to play again. He wanted heart and desire and I think I showed that.”