You would never know there was a Davis Cup final being held in Ghent. From the outside, the Flanders Expo, a collection of vast halls built like aircraft hangars, looks empty and still under construction.
Inside, however, it is a hive of activity. All the elements necessary to make the tie work – from the British Pub to the Belgian Café via the VIP areas and food courts – are being brought in on pallets and trucks. Men with cherry pickers and drills go about their business but outside there is not a banner nor a sign. Not a hint of a major sporting occasion being organised.
Until such time as the public are let through the doors on Friday, neither the International Tennis Federation nor the Belgian Tennis Federation want to draw attention to the venue, not with the current security alerts in Belgium.
The sell-out 13,000 crowd will be screened and searched as they enter and there are no more tickets to be had. There are CCTV cameras at every turn and while everyone is on their guard, there is no sense of panic as the hours tick away before the first match.
Leon Smith and his team only arrived on Monday and had only managed one practise session by yesterday lunchtime. More importantly, in the cavernous venue, one with the main doors thrown open while all the supplies are being delivered, it is bitterly cold. Outside it is three degrees Celsius and tipping it down with rain, inside, it is drier but not much warmer. That means the indoor clay court is behaving differently to the way it will play at the weekend when the heating is on, the doors are shut and there are 13,000 noisy fans packed in.
“I think the court’s good,” Andy Murray said from beneath a woolly hat and tucked up in a puffa jacket. “I only practised once on it so far yesterday evening. It has been very cold in there yesterday and also this morning. Obviously that changes the way the court plays and the way the ball travels through the air. Hopefully this afternoon and the next couple of days we’ll get to play in more similar conditions to the matches. Obviously playing indoors tends to make things a little bit quicker, which helps obviously. But I only played on the court for a couple hours in freezing cold conditions. It’s kind of hard to know exactly how the court’s going to play come Friday.”
Smith, though, is not too worried. Andy and Jamie Murray practised on clay before the World Tour Finals last week while, at the same time, Kyle Edmund and James Ward were playing on clay in South America. Getting a feel for this court may be tricky but his men have put in enough graft on the red dirt to be ready.
“It’s more about preparing for the match-ups,” Smith said. “The training that everyone has done, it’s been different for each and every one of them because of the schedules.
“From Andy and Jamie preparing on indoor clay even before going to Tour Finals and then obviously James and Kyle going to South America, Dom going on indoor clay before. It’s been slightly different for each player, but it’s all been geared towards the surface and environment here.”
The big question remains – who will play second string to Murray in the singles? Both Edmund and Ward are here and trying to make their case for selection but, as yet, Smith is keeping his powder dry and does not have to make his final decision until one hour before the draw tomorrow. On paper, Edmund is the obvious choice after he won the Buenos Aires Challenger just over a week ago (Ward lost in the second round of that event). But still Smith keeps close counsel.
“We wanted to get here and actually get a feel for the venue, feel for the courts,” Smith said. “That’s why I didn’t speak to the guys directly about it just yet. I’m going to wait and see over the next day or two, then speak to them obviously in advance of [the draw].”
That does not help either Ward or Edmund sleep easily at night. Both are desperate to play but both will do whatever is required for the sake of team harmony and to give Britain the best chance of success.
“It’s not easy,” Ward said quietly. In March, he was the hero of the hour beating John Isner in the first round tie. Now he is just waiting and hoping for the nod. “Obviously everyone wants to play in such a big competition, obviously the final. But, it’s been a big team effort for years. It’s not just about this year, it’s been about the last four, five years. Many different players, even guys that aren’t here this week, have played a big part in that. We’ll all work together as a team and fight for the best result for all of us.”
Meanwhile, the men with the power tools keep hammering and sawing while outside, the rest of Ghent passes by oblivious to the historic cup final that is about to begin. Britain are favourites to win the trophy but that will count for nothing when the first ball is hit and the tie is under way. And when someone finally closes the doors and turns the heating up, we know we will be ready to start.