Great Britain and Belgium all square 1-1 in Davis Cup Final

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NOVEMBER 27, DAVIS CUP FINAL – In Day One from Ghent, Belgium, the home country and Great Britain are knotted at 1-1.

After an hour and 11 minutes of this final, one of the tennis stories of the year was two-thirds written. Kyle Edmund, a 20-year-old born in Johannesburg but who has lived most of his life in England, was threatening to make one of the most impressive Davis Cup debuts ever, and to kill off this final within two hours of it starting. He led David Goffin 6-3, 6-1, having had a set point to win his first set in Davis Cup as a bagel.

At that point, the British captain Leon Smith could feel not only vindicated in giving his youngster the second singles slot after Andy Murray, but confident about the rest of the weekend. If his No 2 player could so utterly dominate the world No 16, then even if he went on to lose the match he would still be highly fancied to win a fifth rubber against either the world No 84 (Steve Darcis) or No 108 (Ruben Bemelmans). Yet, by the time Edmund did lose the match, Smith would have been decidedly less rosy about the rest of the weekend.

Edmund was outstanding for two sets. In a 12-minute first game, he looked a little nervous, perhaps because he’d been kept waiting a long time in an otherwise highly impressive opening ceremony. But once he’d saved two break points, he was out of the blocks, and Goffin did well to stave off a 6-0 set. Goffin was clearly feeling the weight of expectation, and in the second set his serve disintegrated as he double-faulted three service games away.

But the match began to turn after he stopped Edmund’s impressive streak at seven games. Edmund played a poor third game of the third set, and Goffin was in. The Belgian wasn’t playing particularly well, but Edmund’s drop in level allowed Goffin to find his way to some form. Soon Edmund was looking physically weak. He admitted after the match that he was struggling with tiredness and cramping in the fourth and fifth sets, and he crumbled, losing the last 12 games as Goffin won 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0. Yet it wasn’t a long match – two hours 47 minutes in total – so the Brit was basically saying he began to wilt after two hours.

More importantly, when asked on three occasions whether he would be mentally and physically ready to play the fifth rubber on Sunday if needed, he said he’d be physically fit but didn’t talk about the mental side. While there was nothing he said that could be held against him, he didn’t sound like a man who believed he could win. And his physical condition must be a worry – this is the player who beat Stéphane Robert in five sets in the first round of the French Open in May, but then couldn’t take to the court to play Nick Kyrgios two days later because his body had rebelled. He may simply not be ready for two best-of-five matches in three days.

Murray’s reliability

Goffin’s win threw the spotlight back on Andy Murray. It was always expected that Murray had to win three matches for the British to lift their first Davis Cup since 1936, so his best scenario was a straight sets win. He got one – he beat Ruben Bemelmans 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 – but it took half an hour longer than it needed to after Murray was docked a point for a second audible obscenity at 2-2 in the third set.

Both captains were warned before this final that the umpires would be very strict about audible obscenities, and Murray is a serial offender. It’s a wonder that television picture directors persist in showing close-ups of Murray’s face after he misses a shot, as the camera regularly catches him mouthing words that wouldn’t be heard in polite society, for which few lip-reading skills are required. So it was no surprise that Murray was warned early in the third set.

What was a surprise was that he did it again just two games later, and right under the nose of the umpire. He claimed afterwards not to have heard the first warning because of the crowd noise, and joked that he found it hard to believe the umpire had heard the words he had used for the same reason. But with his record, it was a pretty feeble excuse, and he had effectively put himself in a straitjacket for the rest of the match. So when he was broken to trail 2-4, he couldn’t let out the angst with his usual flurry of unpublishable terms. He was clearly very wound up.

Murray eventually recaptured control of the match. He let out an animalistic “yeah!” when he saved at set point at 4-5, then broke for 6-5 on three magnificent forehands, and served out a victory that always looked likely. But the whole thing took two hours 24 minutes, the third set taking almost half of it, and the extra half-hour could come back to bite him in Sunday’s singles against Goffin if Saturday’s doubles goes long.

There seems little doubt that the Murray brothers, Jamie and Andy, will play for the British on Saturday, but the Belgians had a lot to discuss over their Friday dinner. The nominated pair of Steve Darcis and Kimmer Coppejans is merely that: a nomination. Darcis seems likely to play, but probably partnering Goffin or Bemelmans. Belgian’s captain Johan van Herck said he didn’t know what his pairing would be but accepted that Goffin with either Darcis or Bemelmans was “a possibility.”

Murray denied that the doubles would be as crucial as in some Davis Cup encounters, but he is probably talking up his team’s chances in a fifth rubber more than he actually believes in them. If it went to a fifth, the Belgians would be favourites, which is why Murray will know he really has to win on Saturday and Sunday to take the fifth rubber out of it.

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