Murray brothers take doubles, up 2-1 over Belgium

Andy Murray

Andy Murray has the second of three wins he’s looking for in Ghent. Mal Taam/MALT Photo

FROM THE DAVIS CUP FINAL IN GHENT, BELGIUM – By all economic logic, doubles as a spectator sport ought to be dead by now. The gulf between public interest in singles and doubles seems to grow each year, and the ATP has only saved the doubles circuit by a change in the scoring system that effectively limits the length of matches.

And yet the corpse continues to breathe, especially in Davis Cup where the doubles can still be pivotal, despite making up just 20 percent of a weekend’s action. The doubles in this final was a case in point, not just pivotal, but a very watchable match. Great Britain’s Andy and Jamie Murray’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Belgium’s Steve Darcis and David Goffin is unlikely to be memorable as a great contest, but it was a fascinating tactical encounter which had some great points, and the result makes it hard to see anything other than the British claiming a tenth Davis Cup title on Sunday.

And yet there was something unsatisfying about it. The weakest link among the four was, by some way, Jamie Murray. He looked almost out of his depth at times, and his kid brother had to bail him out on numerous occasions. Darcis and Goffin, playing together for just the fifth time (including two Challengers), targeted the left-handed Murray, and allowed him no confidence on his returns, many of which he lobbed more in hope than expectation.

Eventually Jamie woke up, most noticeably after dropping serve early in the third set, and by the end his volleys were sharp. But his serve was always shaky, and Andy was the only member of the quartet not to be broken.

And yet, if one looks at the doubles rankings, Jamie is seventh, while Andy is at 180, Goffin at 378, and Darcis 596. And the reason Andy, Goffin and Darcis played when higher-ranked doubles players were available is that they are better players – they just don’t play enough doubles to have better rankings. In effect, when it comes to Davis Cup, singles rankings generally are a better guide to doubles prowess than doubles rankings.

That is not to knock doubles on the tour. The doubles competition at the recent ATP World Tour finals produced some great matches and human interest stories, capped by a 34-year-old from the Caribbean, Jean-Julien Rojer, reaching the top of his profession having grown up with self-taught strokes in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, with very little help until the Grand Slam Development Fund picked him up at 13. Tour doubles has clearly found its niche, serving a useful purpose as a sub-tour to the singles stars.

But Davis Cup regularly shows that a top-100 singles player generally trumps a doubles specialist. Goffin and Darcis were Belgium’s best option, and with Darcis holding the pair together with some delightful touches at the net, Belgium could easily have won until Darcis faded badly in the fourth set. But a tactical adjustment initiated by Andy proved the Belgians’ undoing.

The Murrays took the first set, but the match seemed to turn when Jamie was broken in the third game of the second. With the Belgians targeting Jamie, Andy had to take a lot of risks to cover for his brother. When Jamie was broken at the start of the third set, the Belgians looked the likelier winners, but at that point Andy started staying back while Jamie was returning, thereby giving his brother a bigger target to aim for and making it harder for the Belgian at the net to hit volley winners.

Combined with the Belgians’ failure to come in after their serves, the effect proved dramatic. It allowed Jamie to push his returns and charge in to the net. As his reflex volleys found their range alongside Andy’s cultured volleys, the visitors wrested the initiative from the hosts, and turned the match back in their favour. There was a flurry of breaks: Jamie, Darcis, Goffin, Jamie again and Darcis again, but thanks to Andy’s service holds the British took the third set.

With Darcis broken in the third game of the fourth, and tiring badly, Jamie’s confidence grew, and he was a more convincing player at the end as the Murrays ran out winners in two hours, 49 minutes. Andy paid tribute to his brother at the end, saying, “I trust Jamie on a doubles court so much, and even if he started slow, I knew he would get it going. He loves playing in big matches. He tends to perform very well on big occasions, and this year in all of the ties, he’s performed extremely well. I trust him when he’s next to me on the court, not just because he’s my brother but because he’s an exceptionally good tennis player.”

Sunday’s singles key is Murray vs. Goffin

Nice words, and no doubt heartfelt to a brother and teammate. Nonetheless, the match strengthens the impression that the British team is Andy Murray plus a couple of helpers, and Murray is likely to seal victory for Great Britain – and make it 11 wins out of 11 for him in Davis Cup this year – when he takes on David Goffin in Sunday’s first reverse singles.

That match is not a foregone conclusion. Goffin can afford to be more relaxed than he was against Kyle Edmund in Friday’s singles, and while he has never taken a set off Murray in two previous meetings, they have yet to play on clay, which is Goffin’s best surface. But Belgium’s problems appear to go beyond the unlikelihood of Goffin beating Murray. Darcis admitted to tiring in the fourth set of the doubles, and while he said he’d be available for a fifth rubber if necessary, he looks out of the running having used up his reserves in the doubles.

Inadvertently, this doubles may have acted as an advertisement for next year’s Olympic doubles tournament. The allure of Olympic medals means the best singles players are often willing to turn out for doubles in the Olympics, indeed it has been known for players to default from the singles if they feel they have a better chance of a medal in doubles. The theory that the Olympics have the best doubles tournament in today’s tennis – because so many top singles players turn out – appears to have been boosted by Saturday’s action at this Davis Cup final.

Rafa’s worst hour followed by rise of Robson

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WIMBLEDON – Whether his knee was killing him or not, Rafael Nadal’s 7-6(4) 7-6(8) 6-4 defeat to the Belgian journeyman Steve Darcis in the first round was a true shocker. The Spaniard had just come off perhaps his most impressive run ever at Roland Garros ever and as a stunned John Isner said when he found out about the defeat :”He’s been the best player in the world this year, and that’s with missing Australia, too. He’s only lost two matches, right? I don’t care what the surface is, it’ll be a big shocker…So much for that Roger vs. Rafa.”

Yes, so much for that highly anticipated quarterfinal. Nadal would not blame the loss on painful knees and that was a wise choice because Darcis played one of the best matches of his life and while even the Belgian conceded that the Spaniard was not at his best, he certainly had to earn the victory in a tight match and that he did, as he was the more creative and accurate player. Nadal was bit slow, and therefore lacked response time and Darcis kept pushing ahead and ended up making him uncomfortable. Of course Darcis has to be applauded for not letting down toward the end of the second or third set, when the match was essentially won or lost. Even if Nadal was aching, had the Belgian let go of his momentum, he might have grown shaky and handed Nadal the victory. But he did not and in the opinion of one of Nadal’s confidantes, it was better for Rafa to lose in the first round than the second or third, largely because his physical agony would have been extended and could have lead to more time off the tour.

What that contention indicates is that the Spaniard was never going to win the tournament in the first lace, because his body was too beat up to do so.  It is not too forward to venture that sometime in the future Nadal is going to admit that his knees were hurting even at the end of Roland Garros. So for all his success from February through early June, it appears that he has not fully healed and perhaps never will be.

The good news for Nadal fans in North America is that he unequivocally said that he is planning to play the US Open. The bad news is that he may decide to play a tournament on clay after Wimbledon, which very well could take him out of Canada or Cincinnati or both, if he gets hurt there.

Nadal’s most notable quote after the defeat was this one:  “Nobody remember the loses. People remember the victories. And I don’t want to remember that (loss).”

Actually people do remember the losses of he great champions to marginal players. Within minutes after the loss, folks were debating whether it was the biggest upset in the history of Wimbledon. Given that The Championships is still considered to be tennis most valued and important event, that discussion alone shows just how significant the upset was. After bad day for Rafa on court, his reputation took a hit, and his assessment appeared as far off the mark as some of his shanked forehand against Darcis.

Robson comes alive

There wasn’t nearly as much drama on Tuesday, unless you are British and became very pumped up after Laura Robson’s excellent 6-3 6-4 upset of No. 10 Maria Kirilenko. Robson has really stepped up to the occasion in three out of the last four Slams. She clearly likes the big courts in intense atmospheres. Not only that, when she is brimming with self-belief, she can really play. She certainly need to improve her foot speed, balance, court positioning, volley and second serve, but the lefty was cracking first serves against the savvy Kirilenko, dictating with her huge forehand and popping some nice two- handed backhands also. Plus with the pressure on, she easily closed out the final game, which was critical.

So now after a pretty lousy spring, Robson has put herself in a solid position to make second week run. She’ll be substantially favored to take out Mariana Duque in the next round, and at the level she played on Tuesday, will have real chances against Peng Shuai in round three should they met, and even Angie Kerber if she get to the round of 16. How about this tantalizing possibility: a quarterfinal match up against the mighty Serena Williams next Tuesday. Talk about pre match drama—Princess Kate, Prince William,  Pippa and maybe even the queen would be scrambling for Royal Box seats for the that one.

I am writing about the US players for and focused on Madison Keys and Dennis Kudla’s wins today. I looked at Sloane Stephens win over Jamie Hampton yesterday.  There were some disappointing by the defeats US crowd, specifically Sam Querrey going down in five to Bernard Tomic and Kerber’s win over Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who had a 2-0 record against the German heading into the match.

The upset of the day on the women’s side went to Karolina Pliskova who bested Nadia Petrova 6-3 6-2.  Quality wins were scored by Sabine Lisicki over Francesca Schiavone 6-1 6-2, Elena Vesnina over Andrea Hlavackova 6-2 7-5, Marina Erakovic over Ayumi Morita 4-6 6-0 7-5, and Kimiko Date-Krumm over Carina Witthoeft 6-0 6-2.

As good as Tsvetana Pironkova can be on grass, here’s a result that should make now ex-coach Martina Hingis’ head spin: the Bulgarian beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-0 6-1.

But it gets worse: Alexandra Cadantu overcame grass lover Tamira Paszek 6-2 7-5. The Austrian is now 2-15 on the season. But how about this: Arantxa Rus lost a record-breaking 17th consecutive main-draw, tour-level match today

Men’s wins of he day go to: the serve and volleying Feliciano Lopez over Gilles Simon 6-2 6-4 7-6(11); another serve-and-volleyer, Michael Llodra over Jarkko Nieminen 7-6(3) 6-4 6-3; Tomas Berdych over Martin Klizan 6-3 6-4 6-4; Richard Gasquet over Marcel Granollers 6-7(2) 6-4 7-5 6-4; Grigor Dimitrov over Simone Bolelli 6-1 6-4 6-3 and Tommy Haas over Dmitry Tursunov 6-3 7-5 7-5. Juan Martin Del Potro deserves kudos too given his recent long illness and his 6-2 7-5 6-1  win over Albert Ramos.