For fans of team sports, there have been two outstanding examples of team performance this summer. More specifically team performance in the absence of that team’s star player. The first was Portugal’s defeat of France in the Euro 2016 final without Cristiano Ronaldo. He is their captain, leader and all-round inspiration. The second was Great Britain’s victory in the Davis Cup quarterfinal against Serbia last weekend without Andy Murray. Their own star player (their only highly ranked singles player) was out due to injury. In both instances, supposed “one-man teams” showed that they were nothing of the sort.
GB’s Davis Cup Heroics Outstrip Even Portugal’s Euro 2016 Win
Portugal’s triumph against France in the Euro 2016 final was impressive enough. After Ronaldo eventually limped out of the game following his injury at the hands of Dimitri Payet, the remaining Portuguese players played well above their previous level. They were first able to remain in the game in the face of sustained French pressure; and then to win it through Eder’s late strike. Having lost to France twice previously in European Championship semifinals, both times as a result of extra-time winners; it was finally Portugal’s time to turn the tables on their long-term nemesis.
However, Great Britain’s win away to Serbia, on clay and without Andy Murray, was even more impressive. After all, even without Ronaldo, Portugal had several other players from top European clubs, such as Renato Sanches, who has just joined Bayern Munich, and Pepe, the Real Madrid centreback who was arguably even more important to their tournament win than Ronaldo himself.
Great Britain’s Heros
By contrast, Kyle Edmund, who played two crucial singles matches in the Davis Cup tie in Andy Murray’s absence, was only ranked No. 67 in the world before the tie began. Even more importantly, had never won a match in a Davis Cup tie. Indeed, not only had he never won a Davis Cup match, but he had played in just one Davis Cup tie before – the final last November against Belgium, when he had capitulated from two sets up against David Goffin to lose in five sets.
Similarly, Dom Inglot, who replaced Murray Jr. in the Davis Cup doubles to play with Andy’s older brother Jamie, had never previously won even a single point in a Davis Cup tie. He had lost both the Davis Cup doubles matches that he had played in before. For all the glory of his marvellous nickname, “Dom the Bomb”, Inglot had yet to show his explosive power in the Davis Cup.
Coming Up Big
All that changed last weekend. First, Edmund won a crucial singles match on the first day of the tie, against Janko Tipsarević. Tipsarević is obviously not the player that he was a few years ago, when he was ranked in the world’s top 10 and even deputized at the World Tour finals when Andy Murray had to withdraw through injury. Nearly two years out of the game through injury had seen him tumble down the world rankings. He is still talented, and even more importantly, experienced opponent. The fact that Edmund dispatched him in straight sets was hugely impressive.
Similarly, in the crucial doubles match on the second day of the tie, Dom Inglot showed exactly why he has always been highly rated as a doubles player. He has even been selected recently by the legendary doubles player Daniel Nestor to be his playing partner on tour. Inglot paired perfectly with Jamie Murray. Despite losing a second set that they had dominated they eventually won through in four sets against Nenad Zimonjic (Nestor’s playing partner for many years) and Filip Krajinovic.
Clinching the Victory
Edmund sealed the tie with a second singles win that was even more stunning than his first. Although Dusan Lajovic was actually ranked below him in the world rankings, Lajovic was a clay court specialist. His silky one-handed backhand had been too good for James Ward on the first day of the tie. But Lajovic’s backhand barely figured as Edmund’s forehand, which continually found the corners of the court with placement and power, dominated.
There is another reason why GB’s victory over Serbia is even more outstanding than Portugal’s triumph. Portugal scored so late in the Euro 2016 final that they only had to withstand the French for just over 10 minutes until they could clinch victory. Meanwhile Edmund faced far greater pressure when he wobbled at the end of his match against Lajovic. First, he failed to serve out for victory. Then, he had to withstand several breakpoints, before coming from behind in the tiebreak to finally win the match.
As John Lloyd, Great Britain’s former Davis Cup captain, said afterwards, if he could withstand that type of pressure – playing away from home, on a surface that was not his best, against a resurgent player who had finally found the form to lift the home supporters; He could withstand anything else that tennis threw at him.
The only downside of Britain’s success in the Davis Cup (winning it last year and reaching a semifinal – at least – this year) is that, like all Davis Cup victories in recent years, it has been achieved against the backdrop of many of the best players in the game not appearing in the competition. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all won the Davis Cup for their countries in recent years. Having won it they have generally decided the following year not to appear. That makes Murray’s attitude to the tournament even more praiseworthy; having won it last year, he has been prepared to do everything possible to win it again this year.
Of course, last weekend, which came immediately after his Wimbledon triumph, Murray was unable to play in the Davis Cup. It was a decision that even Great Britain’s captain, Leon Smith, agreed with. That is what makes it all the more surprising that his understudies in singles and doubles – Edmund and Inglot – could seize their chance to take the main stage. They proved that, like all the best teams (indeed like every team that has ever played any sport); they are not just made up of one man.