Located next to an Ikea warehouse on the outskirts of the admittedly charming Ghent, few could expect the Flanders Expo Centre to be a wonderful addition to great sporting ampitheatres. Theatre of Dreams it most certainly isn’t.
However, it is inside this featureless hangar, into which 100 tonnes of clay has been heaped, then levelled out, that British tennis history is set to be re-written. It is inside this cavernous building that Andy Murray, the de facto leader of the British team, aims to carry his team-mates with him into the record books.
I’m pumped. There’s nerves there obviously. That’s really a positive thing. When I’m not nervous is normally when I worry a little bitAndy Murray
Constructing a clay tennis court takes time – particularly for an event centre more used to hosting shows such as I Love Techno, an all-night rave attended by up to 20,000 thrill seekers.
This is one reason why the Great Britain pre-final, post-draw press briefing yesterday was disrupted by the sound of trucks reversing as the dressing of this Davis Cup final venue continued. It is a race against the clock to finish in time for the 1:30pm local time start today.
The venue will look very different this afternoon, with 13,000 supporters – including more than 1,000 from Britain – inside. Understandably, the Belgians are doing all they can to make it seem as partisan as possible.
Banners hang from the ceiling. Allez Dav, says one, in reference to David Goffin, the home favourite. “C’mon Bemel,” says another, in support of the player, Ruben Bemelmans, who has been handed the dubious honour of tackling Andy Murray in the second singles rubber today.
Indeed, this very ceiling has become a point of contention. Eagle-eyed journalists noticed it looked particularly low earlier this week and so it has now officially been deemed – 3cms lower than the regulation height, with low-hanging beams and girders supporting lights a particular problem. However, the Davis Cup committee has given special dispensation for the match to go ahead, which is a relief to say the least.
Not that Andy Murray was too concerned about the mild controversy, explaining that the roof isn’t as low as it looks, and in any case, the lob shots of which he is so fond do not go as high as it might appear. Neither he nor any of his team-mates had hit any roof girders in practice, he reported. He couldn’t say the same for the team captain, Leon Smith.
“Some of Leon’s forehands have ended up in there,” he quipped. “But I don’t think it’s affected any of us [the players] really.”
It was a rare moment of humour in a pair of rather serious press conferences from both finalists, which was possibly to be expected given the events of the last two weeks in France and Belgium.
Maybe, also, it was the nerves. It isn’t every day players are asked to contemplate the prospect of becoming Davis Cup champions. It is even more rare from a Belgian point of view than it is for Britain. While the visitors last reached this stage in 1978, the hosts have not been in a final since 1904.
No-one was going to sit and pretend they had started on the road to professional tennis fired by dreams of lifting the Davis Cup. Certainly not Andy Murray, nor brother Jamie, who yesterday said he had but one dream, now fulfilled: “I just wanted to play at Wimbledon”.
But perhaps they hadn’t entertained becoming Davis Cup champions because it was an ambition beyond fanciful. Remarkably, Britain are seeking a tenth title to overtake France in the all-time list of Davis Cup winners. But then their last title was in 1936. If Britain are successful in their bid to become champions again, it will have been an even longer wait than the 77 years it took Andy Murray to emulate Fred Perry’s singles win at Wimbledon.
So there is definitely a sense of history weighing heavily on shoulders, specifically those of Andy Murray, as well as Davis Cup debutant Kyle Edmund. Both will feature today, the 20-year-old Edmund handed the onerous task of taking on Goffin, the Belgian No 1, in the opening rubber.
Even Andy Murray admitted to feeling a combination of excitement and nerves on the eve of the final. “I’m pumped,” he said. “There’s nerves there obviously. That’s really a positive thing. When I’m not nervous is normally when I worry a little bit. It’s obviously a big opportunity for all of us.”
But he isn’t, surely, as nervy as world No 109 Bemelmans, a tactical pick ahead of Steve Darcis, and who as recently as last week was playing in a French club match, for Quimperle v Tennis Club Lille, in front of just a smattering of spectators. Considering the commitment he had looming, it is to Bemelmans’ credit that he decided against withdrawing from the French league match.
“You can’t really compare the two experiences,” he said. “It had been organised [that I’d play] since the beginning of the year.”
Each competitor over the next three days will hope to keep an appointment with destiny. For all bar the Murrays, Goffin and possibly the young gun Edmund, it is a one chance to achieve something on the world tennis stage. Even for someone who has risen as high as world No 2, who has two grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in his locker already, it means everything.
“Maybe other people are different,” said Andy Murray, when asked to contemplate what the Davis Cup signifies to him. “But I didn’t have like massive goals when I was ten, 11 years old. I just loved playing tennis, and that was it.
“Since I’ve become a professional, I wanted to try to win the biggest competitions. Obviously we’re here now, and this is the biggest team competition in our sport. Everyone has played a huge part in getting us into this position. I just hope we can do the business over the next few days.”