When Andy Murray swung the first serve in of Britain’s 2016 Davis Cup campaign, and his opponent – Taro Daniel – framed the returning forehand wide, an almighty roar reverberated around Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena. Britain vs. Japan; the Davis Cup was back in the domain of British sport.
Britain vs. Japan 2-1 for GB Whilst Participation Question Continues
Since Great Britain’s Davis Cup victory in Ghent back in November, and Murray’s scathing criticism of the LTA (British tennis’ organising body), there have been growing concerns over what legacy the historic win is going to leave behind. The LTA’s organisation has once again been brought into the merciless scrutiny of the British media. The US tennis community has had concerns of its own since Roddick’s retirement, but now there is a generation that seems to bear great promise in the likes of Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe. British tennis does not have such comfort, and is looking to a Murray-less future with apprehension.
But the present is still very much Murray-orientated, and he led Britain out in its highly anticipated first Davis Cup tie since the delirium of last November. From the outset, his opponent’s nerves were palpable and Murray ruthlessly dismantled Japan’s world #87 6-1 6-3 6-1 in only 90 minutes. Indeed former world #186 Jamie Baker, now a cameo pundit for the BBC, made the point that the vast disparity between the two players, and Taro Daniel’s anxiety, was partly down to the expansiveness of the Barclaycard Arena’s court. Indeed in the opening set, with the baseline’s spacious backdrop, Murray was free to defend in typically deep fashion and Daniel, perhaps already overawed by the setting and his opponent, looked bereft of solutions. The Scot rapidly established a 5-0 lead, at which point Daniel managed to finally hold his serve and clutch onto a consolation game. It would be one of only five holds in the match for the Japanese, who would bear the brunt of Murray’s high pressing returning game.
The second set proved to be a much more competitive affair. Daniel went toe to toe with the world #2, employing a much more aggressive approach and frequently venturing forward to the net to curtail the lengthier baseline exchanges that Murray had comprehensively dominated in the first set. For a natural counterpuncher not well versed in dictating play though – especially versus a player of Murray’s retrieving calibre – this aggression was destined to be unsustainable. And it proved to be so at 3-3 when Daniel, trying to thwart the Scot’s imperious second serve returning, gave away a costly double fault. Murray, invigorated by the break of serve, went on to take the set 6-3.
The third set saw Britain’s #1 secure his superiority early on with an outstanding break at 1-0. A delicate drop volley was followed by two blistering return winners – the second, an instinctive jammed backhand; a fleeting sign that Murray’s match sharpness returning. From there on in, it was a matter of ushering the match to its conclusion, which Murray did emphatically, taking the final set 6-1.
“In front of the home crowd, he’s going to be full of energy,” said GB’s captain Leon Smith of Dan Evans, ahead of his clash with Kei Nishikori. And he duly fulfilled his captain’s expectations. In front of his hometown crowd, Evans – whose application has been questioned in years gone by – put in a tenacious display in his 6-3 7-5 7-6(3) defeat to Kei Nishikori. But to merely define his performance by its work ethic would be to belittle the genuine quality that the world #157 pushed Nishikori with; it was ultimately – as tennis so often painfully is – fine margins that separated the two players. Evans’ decision making on the big points was arguably culpable of naivety, opting to serve and volley on numerous occasions. But Nishikori’s incisive returning also made the difference, epitomised by how he set up his decisive set point in the first set: with two unstoppable up the line winners off the Evans second serve.
Midway through the second set, Evans hit a remarkable purple patch. At 3-3, the Brit was presented with three break points. But in contradiction to his somewhat gung ho approach on the big points in the first set, Evans was too conservative, and Nishikori ruthlessly capitalised to recover his deficit. Similarly to Taro Daniel just a couple of hours earlier, Evans then became riddled with nerves – saving two set points only to contrive to net a volley and throw in a double fault, giving Nishikori a two sets to love lead. The two men’s exertions left them evidently tired in the third, and there was a spate of service breaks. Certainly, Birmingham-born Evans will be rueing his missed opportunities, having failed to build on leads at 3-2 and 4-3. Despite the inconsistency of the two men’s serving, the set eventually culminated in a tiebreak. Here, Nishikori’s higher rank again became apparent, silencing the crowd with a string of measured points to close the match out after an uncharacteristically loose second serve return at 4-2.
It was a compelling tie, yet certainly the BBC’s coverage was undercut by the question of British tennis participation. Indeed, the statistic that no British boys qualified for a junior grand slam in 2015 hangs over like an ominous storm cloud. Jamie Baker struck at the heart of what is truly erroneous in British tennis at the moment though. “I was born into a house that was 100 hundred yards from a tennis club,” he said. “After school, my mum would make me a packed lunch and I would go from four o’clock to eight o’clock and come home and go to bed. There were kids there the whole time. I’d play a bit of pool, and anytime the adults came off for ten minutes we’d run onto the courts. We need to create those types of atmospheres, where people are motivated to be around the sport.”
The ‘atmosphere’ he is referring to is that idyllic sense of community that, in Britain, has become synonymous with football – that charming urban scene of kids kicking a ball about on their local street until sunset. The nature of tennis’ facilities currently inhibits such communal accessibility, but with some astute grassroots investment, what Jamie Baker is describing could be replicated throughout Britain and the US to change this. What he is alluding to is no pipe dream; simply, more clubs in residential areas would make his childhood a commonality. All that the LTA needs to do is cast off their short-termism ethos and engage in some lasting investment, to bolster participation and boost that foreboding number of junior prospects. Then hopefully, British tennis can savour its current success without the worries of the future.
A fresh Murray teamed with his brother Jamie to comfortably win the doubles rubber 6-3 6-2 6-4 over the young Japanese pairing of Yasutaka Uchiyama/Yoshihito Nishioka. The Murray brothers had far better chemistry, and were clicking on all of the key points as they didn’t face much pressure on Saturday.
The lead is now 2-1 for team GB, and they are in the drivers seat as Murray should be favored over Nishikori in the fourth rubber, and Evans would also be favored over Daniel in a possible fifth rubber.