DAVIS CUP, Nov. 29 – The 2015 tennis season is over, and it may have ended on the shot of the year. Andy Murray has steered Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title since 1936, the last of the golden years British tennis enjoyed before Fred Perry retired. Murray beat David Goffin of Belgium 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 to win the Davis Cup for the 10th time and set his own record for the most live rubbers won in a year.
If great drama is made by confounding expectations, this would not count as great drama. The British were expected to win 3-1, and they duly did. But if drama can also be finding the most breathtaking shot at the most crucial moment, then Andy Murray’s lob on match point was one of the shots of the year.
It was the Scot’s second match point. On the first he had dumped a backhand return into the net off a nervy second serve. On the second he got into a long rally, which Goffin appeared to be controlling. On the 17th shot, Goffin drove a forehand into Murray’s forehand corner. Murray did well to get it back. Goffin stepped in for the kill, driving his forehand to the Murray backhand. But Murray read it, stepped across and played the most exquisite lob on the 20th stroke to seal the trophy for the British. A short worthy of the moment!
Anyone not in the stadium or watching on television would note the result as exactly what most people expected. But Goffin played well. His performance was vastly better than his paltry display three weeks ago when Murray beat him 6-1, 6-0 at the Paris Masters, and while he lacked the presence to seriously threaten Murray, he offered a constant reminder that he was good enough to seize the initiative if Murray’s level dropped.
But then Murray has been outstanding all year. Because of the ITF’s custom of counting dead rubbers as part of Davis Cup records, Murray’s 11 wins this year leaves him still behind John McEnroe and level with Michael Stich and Ivan Ljubicic. But three of McEnroe’s 12 wins in 1982 were dead rubbers, and one of Stich’s in 1993 was; Ljubicic’s 11 wins in 2005 were all live, but he lost his final match to Dominik Hrbaty on the final day of the final. By contrast, Murray has won 11 out of 11, all live, and only didn’t play against the Bryan twins in March’s first round because James Ward had beaten John Isner on the Friday so Murray was rested for the doubles. He can therefore count as the most successful Davis Cup player in a single year since the World Group began in 1981, and following this triumph Ljubicic tweeted that Murray’s achievement in 2015 is greater than his from 2005.
If that feels like a trick with statistics, there’s no doubting Murray’s colossal status as a team player. Although he is the best tennis player the British have ever produced (with the possible exception of Perry, but the level of competition was so much less intense in the 1930s), he is not the only top-level British player since the second world war. Before tennis went open there were Mike Sangster and Mike Davies. Just after it went open, there was a generation of Mark Cox and Roger Taylor, who were closely followed by John and David Lloyd. The Lloyd brothers joined with Cox and Buster Mottram to reach the final in 1978, but that’s as close as the British have come since Perry. Even the twin-flag-carriers Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, both of whom reached fourth in the rankings, never got beyond the first round of the world group.
Much as this triumph is a single-handed one for Murray, the energy he brought to the team even five years ago has been very important. The appointment of Leon Smith as captain in 2010 was significant, in that Smith had coached Murray from age 11 to 15, so there was a trusting relationship there. Smith’s first tie in charge was to avoid relegation to the bottom tier of the Davis Cup, and Murray made it clear he would not always be available to play so he expected Britain’s other players to carry some of the load.
Only in September 2013 did Murray commit fully to playing every tie. By then the British were the playoff round for the world group, having rallied from 0-2 down to beat Russia in April 2013, with James Ward and Dan Evans winning clutch rubbers on the final day. So when Murray talks about this Davis Cup triumph being a team effort, he is not being polite or parading false modesty – he is genuinely aware of the contribution made by the players ranked lower than him.
It was a point he regularly emphasised in Great Britain’s 2015 run. Having won Olympic gold, the US Open and Wimbledon, the Davis Cup was his next target, and he recognised very early that this was a team pursuit, however dependent the British were on him. And not just the other players, but also the backroom staff of coaches, physios, etc.
The word ‘team’ is more important than ‘patriotic’ in Murray’s context. He represents two countries – Scotland and Great Britain – and is a very proud Scot. Although he didn’t have a vote in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence (because he lives in England), he let it be known late in the campaign that he had been inspired by the independence campaign and would have voted to secede from the United Kingdom if he’d been so enfranchised.
Yet here he was crying his eyes out in emotional triumph for the entity he’d have voted to break away from. In that respect it was more like a golfer winning for the European Ryder Cup team than for a player winning for his nation, more a triumph for the team backed by a geographical entity than for any sense of patriotism. When asked after his win over Goffin who the passion was for, he talked much more about his team-mates than about his country.
“Always when I’ve played Davis Cup, since I was 17, I’ve been unbelievably passionate,” he said. “I loved it when I played the doubles against Israel [his debut]. That hasn’t changed, but also I know all this team extremely well, and because we’ve been together for such a long time there’s a stronger bond between us than there has been in the past, and I think all the players get on with each other, respect each other, and a lot of us are close friends, so it means a lot to do it with them.”
Murray’s biggest problem remains that his on-court persona endears him to so few people. Even his country folk sometimes find it hard to warm to him, yet he is held in the highest esteem by those who know him off-court. The Belgian captain Johan van Herck said after this final, “I’m very pleased for Andy. He deserves this both as a sportsman and as a human being. I’ve known him since he was a junior, and while he sometimes pushes things to the limit when he’s on court, he is always a very decent man off the court, always interested in people. He’s a big man.”
And as the last member of the ‘big four’ to win the Davis Cup, he’s a bit bigger now.