Posted in Tennis

Rumble in the concrete jungle

If, at the start of the year, someone had told me that Roger Federer would get to the final of the 2017 Australian Open, I would have scoffed. If someone had also told me that Rafael Nadal would get to the final, I would have laughed. If someone had also told me that Roger would beat Rafa in five epic sets, sweeping the last five games with a purple patch of groundstroke winners and clutch get-out-of-jail aces, I would have thought they were a fruitcake in the grip of a psychotic episode and inched away. No doubt the man himself would have arched a disbelieving eyebrow and told you he would just be happy making enough prize money to cover the airfare.

But it happened. Somehow, impossibly, it happened. The fairytale final gave us the fairytale result. I have long had a flickering hope that Federer might win one more major, but never for a nanosecond did I think he could do so by beating his biggest rival. As a Federer fan, my brain is encrusted with scar tissue from the many big matches I’ve watched him lose to Nadal. Roger’s rivalry with Rafa is a rivalry of pain. The Spaniard beating the Swiss in grand slam finals is a time-hardened tradition, one of the fundamental laws on which men’s tennis rests. The notion that Federer, aged 35 and coming off a six-month injury layoff, could overcome his nemesis in a major final for the first time in ten years – for the first time ever away from Wimbledon – wasn’t just unlikely, it was a gross insult to plausibility.

How, for one thing, would he master his nerves? Even in Federer’s imperial phase (2005-2009) he struggled mentally with the challenge posed by Nadal, and each of the three grand slam finals he played in 2014 and 2015 (against Novak Djokovic) were lost in part due to the Swiss’s big-match jitters. Like many, I thought Federer’s last chance had come – and gone – at the 2015 US Open final, when he took only four of 23 break points despite having the support of possibly the most pro-Roger crowd in tennis history. It was as if an imp of doubt whispered in his ear during the big points and he forgot he was the most successful player in tennis history.

And if doubts plagued him against Novak Djokovic, a player he has beaten plentifully in the past, what chance did he stand against Rafa – his curse, his kryptonite, a player with a game precision-engineered, seemingly, to beat him? And let’s not forget. This was no ordinary grand slam final. Fedal XXXV was the most legacy-critical match Roger would ever play. History pivoted on the outcome. If Federer won, he would pull four majors clear of Nadal and confirm himself as the greatest player to tote a racquet. But if Nadal won, he would sit just two majors behind, with the French Open (where he has nine titles and counting) looming large. And it would tilt a lopsided head-to-head (23-11) further in Nadal’s favour, raising again the question: how can Federer be the greatest player of all time when he isn’t even the greatest player of his generation?

So it was an important match. But to me – and I suspect, to Federer himself – Fedal XXXV seemed less an explosive final-act culmination than the bonus epilogue. Face it: Nadal won this rivalry in 2008-2009, when he beat Federer in three grand slam finals on three different surfaces. Since then, other rivalries – Nadal-Djokovic, Djokovic-Federer, Djokovic-Murray, Djokovic-Wawrinka – have come along and eclipsed it. This isn’t the noughties any more. Neither Nadal nor Federer are fresh-faced wunderkinds in the full rude vigour of their twenties. Rafa’s mane of untamed hair is unmistakeably thinning; Roger’s face is lined with the disappointments of coming up short in the quest for one more major. In tennis terms, they are past it. At the dawn of 2017, Federer and Nadal had won one grand slam between them in the last three years.

The Australian Open final, then, was an gloriously unexpected gift from two weatherbeaten warriors in the evening of their careers. Strain, and you could almost hear the world of sport holding its breath, the tennis journalists reaching for their juiciest superlatives. Me, I thought the match would be entertaining in parts, but eventually play out the way it almost always does. That is, with Nadal wearing Federer down. The Spaniard’s playbook for beating Roger is nothing if not well-thumbed. Basically, hit crosscourt forehand after crosscourt forehand to Federer’s backhand, until Federer’s backhand (bullied to buggery by all that topspin) coughs up a short ball or an error. Point Nadal. And so – familiarly – on. But just this once, it didn’t happen that way.

Evidently, Federer had not spent his six-month injury layoff sitting with folded hands. He had spent it upgrading his backhand. And in the final against Nadal we witnessed the full majesty of Backhand 2.0 – a shot newly undaunted by Nadal’s topspin, capable of firing winners both crosscourt and down-the-line. When it comes to piecing together the how of Federer’s win, the new, faster Australian Open court was a factor, as was with the heaviness in Nadal’s legs after his five-hour semi-final with Grigor Dimitrov. But the biggest difference-maker? Roger’s backhand. He hit 14 backhand winners in the final – the majority coming when he needed them the most. In the fifth set.

The fifth set. For Federer fans, it will go down in legend and song. Of course, it all began so unpromisingly – with Roger being broken by an ascendant, victory-sensing Rafa in the opening game. In my head, at that point, I concluded all was lost. But in my heart, there still fluttered a butterfly of hope. Pessimistic as my pre-match predictions had been, Federer had been the better player. The match was on his racquet. He could still win: he just needed to conquer his doubts, empty his mind of negative vibrations. Not so easy, admittedly, when your nemesis is standing on the other side of the net. And is just five holds of serve away from victory.

It is an unwritten tennis law that Federer loses close matches against his biggest rivals. You might not be able to out-forehand him, but you can outfight him. Just ask Djokovic. Or, of course, Nadal. But in assuming that Federer would fold once again, I had been mistaken. This was a new, self-knowing Roger Federer, who didn’t fade and didn’t fear defeat. Coolly self-possessed, his mind as clear as ice water, he fought back against Nadal, showing a pitch of brilliance I had long thought beyond him in a big match. With history at his shoulder, Federer played some of the finest tennis of his career. In two straight Nadal service games, he earned break points and didn’t take them – missed opportunities that would have deflated him in the past. No more. Undaunted, he broke Nadal in his next two service games and, serving for the match, fended off two break-back points: the first with an ace, the second with a fearless forehand howitzer.

That Federer won the match, somewhat awkwardly, on a Hawkeye challenge, didn’t spoil the moment. How could it? This was History. Federer’s magical 18th grand slam, won at 35 years old, after a six-month injury hiatus, over five sets, against nemesis of nemeses Rafael Nadal. His most memorable major, won when everyone expected it the least. Seeing Federer celebrate, his face flooded with a childlike joy, is not something I’m not likely to forget any time soon – and at the risk of being accused of Fedolatry, was exactly the sort of tonic a troubled world needed.

It’s time for everyone to stop wagging loose tongues. The debate is settled, forever, amen. Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. Of course, he was before. But now his career has the only meaningful thing it was missing: an unforgettable, final-act flourish.

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Posted in Tennis

Fedal XXXV: Encore, encore!

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It could be the revitalising Melbourne air. Or perhaps someone spiked the tournament Lucozade with some elixir of youth. Either way, this year’s Australian Open has been one for the aged – that’s right, aged. During the past fortnight, we’ve seen a quartet of thirtysomethings roll back their considerable years and show younger rivals that elder might really mean better. An all-Williams grand slam final – the first since 2009 – is astonishing enough. But the proper rub-your-eyes surprise happened on the men’s side. Eleven years after their first, and five years after their last, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will compete on the final Sunday of a major one more, and probably one last, time. For what we are about to receive, may the Tennis Gods make us truly thankful.

Ever since their opening skirmishes in the mid-noughties, Federer and Nadal have been the equal and opposite forces defining tennis in the popular imagination. Their five-set grand slam finals at Wimbledon (in 2007 and 2008) and the Australian Open (in 2009) are etched deeply in the annals of sporting history. Even today, after a half-decade of domination, Novak Djokovic is dismissed sniffily as the ‘third wheel’ – an arriviste who disrupted the most beloved rivalry in sport. If Federer-Nadal are the Beatles, Djokovic-Murray are Wings: the follow-up that never scaled the same heights. That’s why everyone’s so excited to see the original band reform and play the Rod Laver Arena for an unexpected encore.

There’s a good reason why Federer and Nadal are so surpassingly popular. All great sporting rivalries depend on contrasts in styles, and ‘Fedal’ has contrasts wherever you look. Roger is a right-hander with a single-handed backhand, Rafa a left-hander with a double-hander. But it’s more than that: each man stands for different, opposing ideals. Federer is less athlete, more artist. Like a ballerina he glides around the court, moving with a minimum of effort, firing winners at perfectly judged moments. When God was ladling out elegance, the Swiss got a triple helping. Which dovetails delightfully with Nadal, a warrior who opts for practicality before aesthetics. His game is based on brute force and scalding footspeed, and his will to win goes down to the very depths of his vitals.

And Rafa usually does win, at least in the matches that matter. Not for ten years has Federer beaten Nadal at a grand slam, and the Spaniard leads the overall head-to-head 23 wins to 11. Practically from their first meeting (which Nadal won, aged 17), the Spanish bull has been the indefatigable scourge of Federer’s dreams, treating the Swiss as his personal plaything. Nadal’s industrially topspun forehand makes Federer’s one-handed backhand look inadequate at best, obsolete at worst. Their matches often follow the same pattern. Typically Federer starts brightly, and might even snag the first set. But Nadal’s consistency and topspin and passing shots grind him down eventually, the last remnants of Swiss resistance dropping away one shanked backhand at a time.

Will we see the same thing play out on Sunday? It seems likely. Roger-Rafa is a movie we’ve watched before – we’ve worn out the tape – and while entertaining, it’s hardly likely to produce a plot-flip this late in the piece. To beat Nadal, Federer would need to buck history and beat a rival who, after two years of toil, is rejuvenated and seemingly back to his best. In Grigor Dimitrov, Rafa had the perfect warm-up for the final, too: the Bulgarian famously modelled his game after Federer’s.

If Federer – somehow – wins, it won’t be the proclamation of a new tennis order: he’s 35 years old. But it will be a resounding statement, a glorious final chapter in the best of careers, a confirmation that Federer is indeed the greatest of all the greatest. And maybe Fed fans have reason for hope. Nadal is 30 years old, his semi-final lasted five hours, and he has one fewer day to recover. There is madness in the Melbourne air, and perhaps one more surprise awaits us. Either way, it is certain to be an amazing occasion. Yesterday’s men are today’s finalists, and we should enjoy it while it lasts (which will hopefully be five sets).

Posted in Tennis

Stan Wawrinka, Occasional World Beater

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‘Wawrinka stuns Djokovic to win US Open’ went the BBC headline. But how stunned could the Serb world number one have felt, really? Of Stan Wawrinka’s three grand slam triumphs, every single one has featured a win over Djokovic – including the 2014 Australian Open quarter-final, and last year’s masterclass in the final of the French Open. If Novak was indeed stunned by Stan’s win on Sunday, he must have the most terrible memory in tennis.

You can’t fault Djokovic for feeling confident pre-match, though. Based off cold statistics, he was the favourite, ahead in the head-to-head 19–4, and in the grand slam count twelve to two. But he would have known that where Wawrinka is concerned, any such tale of the tape is academic. In grand slam finals at least, the Swiss is a statistical anomaly: the underdog that isn’t. Three times he’s faced the world number one player – once Nadal, twice Djokovic – and three times he’s beaten him. It’s almost as if Wawrinka becomes a different beast when the stakes are highest. So he does: Stan morphs into The Stanimal.

It’s not a physical transformation; he had those stevedore’s shoulders and oil-drum torso all along. As Stanimal behaviourists will attest, it starts with the specimen’s body language instead. Watch closely and he’ll begin pointing to his temple after winning an important point, as much as to say: you won’t beat me, I am a mental fortress. The real giveaways, though, are the groundstrokes. Stan’s backhand has long been the market leader, engineered and conditioned for optimum destructiveness. But when wielded by the Stanimal, the backhand gets an upgrade, and the forehand – generally the less reliable shot – becomes an all-powerful winner machine. A fusillade of heavy artillery later and the enemy is battered into submission: by the close of the US Open final, Djokovic’s body had buckled at the impact of Wawrinka’s powerful blows.

If Stan could summon The Stanimal on command, there’s no telling how many grand slams he’d rack up. Of course, he can’t. Tether a beast and it loses its wildness. Which explains the most common charge levelled against Wawrinka: his inconsistency. Yes, he has the talent to win grand slams; equally, as we saw in Wimbledon and the Australian Open this year, he’s not above losing them the early rounds. If anyone can unseat Djokovic from world number one, then, it won’t be the Swiss. Where Stan goes missing for months at a time, losing to the Andrey Kuznetsovs and Grigor Dimitrovs of the tour, Novak is never off duty, gobbling masters events for breakfast and reaching the business end of almost every grand slam going. The Serb is the keen-jawed tennis executive, nine-to-fiving week in, week out. The Swiss, by comparison, is the stubbled part-timer, swooping into the office unexpectedly to close the big deal – much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced coworkers.

While in all likelihood Stanimal will never have the number one next to his name, he’s singular in another way – an unusually late bloomer, he didn’t win his first major title until aged 28. Previously, Wawrinka fell into the same bucket as Richard Gasquet: a shotmaker with a highlight-reel backhand who lacked the steel to threaten the top players. That was until Wawrinka’s ‘big bang’ moment at the 2013 Australian Open, when, outplaying Djokovic in round four, he lost narrowly 12–10 in the fifth. Encouraged that he could mix it with the best players, he shucked off his low self-esteem and a year later won the very same tournament, up-ending Djokovic and Nadal for good measure along the way. When the French Open was added (in spectacular fashion) a year later, it confirmed the arrival of a new force at the top of men’s game. Until then, grand slams were the monopoly of a favoured few, with everyone else (Cilic, Del Potro) left fighting for the odd scrap from the table.Wawrinka, thrillingly, had broken the bear hug of the big four, arriving just as his Swiss compatriot Roger Federer fell off the pace, just when tennis was threatening to become the Murray-Djokovic show (where the word ‘show’ is used loosely).

We can all be thankful for the Stanimal’s predatory swoops. And at 31, the old beast is showing no sign of mellowing with age. Will we see him one more time on the lawns of SW19? A career grand slam – now that really would leave the tennis world stunned.

 

Posted in Tennis

US Open: Edmund d. Isner

Sport, it is said, is war by other means. And it’s especially so when John Isner and Kyle Edmund are the belligerents. While not tennis’s biggest guns, they do have two of its biggest shots: Isner’s elegant-gun serve and the Edmund’s wrecking-ball forehand are phenomenons best enjoyed behind tempered glass, if you’re a spectator, or a suit of armour, if you’re on the other side of the net. For two hours and 43 minutes they rained blows on each other in an encounter of pulsating, pulverising aggression. Ace followed ace followed ace. Forehand winner followed forehand winner followed forehand winner. The forehand, ultimately, was the winner, Edmund triumphing 6-4 3-6 6-2 7-6 (7-5).

Head-to-head is a misleading term where John Isner is concerned: at six foot ten, the American out-tops Edmund by eight whole inches. But going into the match, Isner was most people’s favourite, having won their sole previous encounter – at this year’s French Open – in straight sets. Since that defeat, however, Kyle Edmund has grown up. In July, he lead a GB team minus Andy Murray to a Davis Cup victory over Serbia. And on Tuesday, in an eye-catching upset, he straight-setted Richard Gasquet in the first round. Edmund always had the big weapons. Now, it seems, he has the big belief to match.

And how he needed it against Isner. Having lost the first set, the American rallied in the second and at the start of the third moved 0-40 up on Edmund’s serve. The match pivoted on this moment. Had he taken one of his break points, Isner would likely have ridden his giant serve to the set, and been odds-on to win the match. As it was, Edmund saved all three break points (with some envenomed forehands) and broke a frustrated Isner in the very next game. While the American hung on all the way to a fourth-set tiebreak, Edmund never again relinquished the momentum, sealing the match, fittingly, with another rip-snorting forehand winner.

Unfortunately, an even taller obstacle awaits him in the fourth round, in the rubbery shape of Novak Djokovic. Djokovic, it’s true, isn’t in his most annihilatingly imperious form. As well as nursing a wrist injury, he’s licking mental wounds sustained during early losses at Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. But to blast holes in the Serb’s anti-tank defence, Edmund will still need his artillery to be at full force. Though if the Isner match is anything to go by, the Brit’s game is developing in unexpected ways. Not just as Nadal-like forehand, Edmund is becoming a a Murray-like passing shot artist too. A cross between Murray and Nadal? That might – just – be enough to take a set off the world number one.

Posted in Tennis, Uncategorized

Roland Garros 2016: Men’s Preview

The 2016 French Open has barely started, but already the list of challengers is one lighter. World number three Roger Federer is out, having thrown his back out of whack in the run-up to the Madrid Masters in April. Once, Federer was a player the gods singled out for their favour. Not just for his style of tennis – so graceful it would make a ballerina weep – but for his charmed imperviousness to injury. From 2000 through 2016, the Swiss didn’t miss a Grand Slam, snagging 17 of them as he put together the greatest CV tennis has seen.

But the cruel winds of circumstance are finally beginning to blow Roger’s way. In February he tore a knee cartilage while running a bath for his twins, necessitating the first surgery of his career. Then came a stomach virus and now a flare-up of the back problem that ailed him throughout his annus horribilis, 2013. With Wimbledon round the corner, and Federer’s 35th birthday in August, are the great man’s chances of major number 18 going-going-gone?

No such problems weigh on world number one Novak Djokovic. Since the start of 2015, the Serb has swept through all opposition like a devouring flame. Such is his dominance that it’s become an act of idiocy not to back Djokovic for every single tournament sight unseen. You don’t even need to watch the matches, so wearyingly predictable has been the result. But just for once Novak isn’t the presumptive no-brainer shoo-in favourite. Firstly, his form has slipped (a little) of late. He lost early in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, while Andy Murray clipped him in the final at Rome. And secondly, Roland Garros is the only major he hasn’t won. If we can be sure of anything in this world, it’s that Novak Djokovic, with every burning fibre of his being, desires to win the French Open. Can he master his inevitable nerves, can he calm his quaking fingers if, say, Nadal (a potential semi-final opponent) starts connecting on his forehand again?

Indeed, Djokovic can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwrought about the Spaniard’s recent resurgence. Lately written off as a busted flush, Nadal has been on a springtime tear, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, then pushing Djokovic uncomfortably close in a 7-5, 7-6(4) quarter-final loss in Rome. A step quicker and seemingly half a head taller, Rafa has rediscovered his mental mojo right on time. With – count them – nine French Open titles to his name, you don’t need advanced analytics to realise that Rafa will be a threat in Paris. But the true, the only, test of whether Nadal is ‘back’ comes over the following two weeks.

And what of Andy Murray? The Scot has a case to be considered the second favourite ahead of Nadal – which just two years ago was a logical absurdity too ridiculous to contemplate, let alone take seriously. For most of his career, Murray had little confidence on the red stuff, believing himself outgunned and – crucially for his counterpunching style – outmanoeuvred. But after back surgery in 2013, Murray improved his movement, and with it his results, beating both Nadal and Djokovic in recent weeks. With those two duking it out on the other side of the draw, you have to fancy him to reach the final.

A not insignificant roadblack in his path might be Stan Wawrinka. I say ‘might,’ because you never know with Stan: is he going to win the tournament or lose limply in the first round? Given his poor recent form, I incline towards the latter. But it could just as easily be the former. Such is the unknowable enigma that is Wawrinka.

Posted in Tennis, Uncategorized

Murray Vs. Djokovic IV – Preview

For the fourth time in six years, it’s Novak versus Andy in the final of the Australian Open. And the excitement is palpable – by its absence. People don’t care. They’ve watched this film too many times, and they know how it ends. With Murray wilting, and Djokovic winning. It happened in 2011, it happened in 2013, it happened in 2015, and as surely as a Jim Courier interview follows the conclusion of a men’s singles match on Rod Laver Arena, it will happen in 2016. But what are the chances that Murray surprises us? Can he actually do it? Can he lift his first Australian Open trophy, at the fifth time of trying?

No.

I mean, honestly. If he didn’t manage it before, what chance does he have now? Because, of late years, Novak Djokovic has found ways to become even better. How much he’s improved is actually scary. The serve is more accurate, the net play is more natural, the formerly shaky forehand is now a reliable weapon of mass destruction. (The backhand, needless to say, remains as impervious as ever.) Murray’s game, by contrast, has rather stood still. Yes, back surgery hindered him in the autumn of 2013, but since beating Djokovic in that summer’s Wimbledon final, Murray has come up short against the Serb ten times out of eleven. At last year’s Shanghai Masters semi-final, Novak routed him 6–1, 6–3 in 67 minutes. Djokovic was always a bad match-up for Murray, but over the past two years, bad has become worse. Close losses have turned into blowouts.

There’s more. Not only will Djokovic come into the final with the boon of an extra day’s rest, but on the back of one of the best performances in Australian Open history. His dismissal of Roger Federer in Thursday’s semi-final was simply, powerfully, terrifyingly brilliant. The Melbourne crowd, as ever primed to raise the roof at every Federer winner, were struck into silence by the ruthless awesomeness of the Serb’s tennis. By contrast, Murray required five sets (and an injury-hampered opponent) to get past Milos Raonic. Sunday’s final doesn’t quite feel like a fair fight.

But there are signs of hope. Small ones. Their most recent Grand Slam matches have all been tight affairs – Murray managed, in last year’s French Open semi-final, to extend Djokovic to five sets. And for all Novak’s godlike genius against Roger Federer, his fourth-round performance against Gilles Simon – when he posted 100 unforced errors – looked more mortal. Perhaps the fact that Murray plays like Simon not Federer can be spun into a good thing.

So what does Andy need to do beat Nole, beyond winning the last point? First and most of all, he needs to serve well. With Djokovic at the other end, service games will always be hard won. Murray needs a high first-serve percentage, and to trust to the improved second serve he displayed in key moments against Raonic. The mental game, too, is key. He can’t let his wits go wandering mid-match, and it’s vital that he bends his energies upon beating his opponent rather barking at his box. Needless to say, he needs to oomph up his forehand, as well, and crack his crosscourt backhand for all it’s worth. He needs to do all of the above, and remember: there’s no shame in losing to the player history may well come to know as the greatest ever.

Heart: Murray in five sets

Head: Djokovic in four

Posted in Tennis

Putting an ‘I’ in ‘team

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To the strains of The Proclaimers and the cheers of the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Great Britain reached the Davis Cup final this weekend with a 3-2 win over Australia. Commentator Andrew Castle was excited, and rightly: it’s an achievement of world-historical magnitude. Not since 1936 have GB won a Davis Cup, and their most recent journey to the final round was as far back as 1978, when wooden racquets and Swedes named Bjorn still ruled the sport.

The Davis Cup is a team competition, but in getting this far, Britain have pushed the word ‘team’ to its logical limits. Last year, the twin talents of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka propelled Switzerland to the title. In 2012 and 2013, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek chipped in for the Czech Republic. In 2011, Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano López stepped up for Spain. This year, GB have Andy Murray. Just Andy Murray. Take out Murray, the world no. 3, and there’s a yawning vacuum: the next-best player, by ranking, is untested Kyle Edmund at 99 (Aljaz Bedene, ranked 55, is ineligible for the Davis Cup, being cup-tied for his earlier career appearances for native Slovenia).

True, James Ward (no. 134), is a Davis Cup warrior whose against-the-odds victories over Sam Querrey, last year, and John Isner, this, turned each tie in GB’s favour. And there’s Dan Evans (300), a skilful, if mercurial, talent whose arty single-handed backhand propelled him to the 3rd round of the 2013 US Open. But in the elite company of the World Group, don’t lay your bets on either winning too many rubbers. The one incontestably great singles player GB have is Murray. Compare us to quarter-final opponents France (who can call upon Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, all ranked 24 or higher), and we’re at least four world-class players light.

So how did GB beat them, and then Australia? For all Murray’s brilliance, he alone can only ever muster two out of the three rubbers needed for victory. He needs a leg-up, and who better to oblige than older brother, Jamie. Jamie Murray, always deadly in doubles, is riding a career-high ranking of 7, having reached the last two Grand Slam doubles finals. Pooling their talents, the Murray brothers are dauntingly strong: Andy is the master returner, Jamie the virtuoso volleyer. Together they give captain Leon Smith, the mastermind of GB’s tennis renaissance, a winning hand: the Murray brothers’ victories over first the French and then the Australian doubles teams were decisive in both ties.

They were also the most entertaining matches in each weekend. The primacy of doubles is one of the more interesting things about Davis Cup. For much of the year, it finds itself sidelined (or should that be tramlined), banished from the big showcourts to make way for the feature act that is singles. So rarely do the top singles players bother with doubles that it may as well be considered a different sport. To many, it is a different sport: all touch, reflex and improvisation, a far cry from the power- and consistency-dominated modern singles game. The mental side is refreshingly different, too. Witness Andy Murray, so often a scowl with a tennis racquet during singles matches, become a focused, proactive can-doer with his brother by his side.

But doubles apart, the credit side of the Davis Cup ledger is looking a little depopulated. That this old competition needs a reboot is more than a minority opinion. This season, Andy Murray was the only marquee name to play the Davis Cup from the start. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal only answered the call last weekend, when their country was threatened with relegation. Representing your flag in the Davis Cup should be a patriotic privilege, but in a tough 11-month season, it can seem a bitter chore. Perhaps there is just too much Davis Cup. It styles itself ‘the World Cup of tennis,’ but would the World Cup itself be as prestigious if contested every single year? Even Sepp Blatter knows the answer to that one.

Flawed as it is, the Davis Cup is clearly a trophy on which Andy Murray has set his heart. In recent years he’s cast covetous eyes first at Nadal, then Djokovic, then Federer as each won glory for their country. He wants to put Britain’s 79-year itch for Davis Cup glory to an end. And so on to the fair shores of Belgium, GB’s opponents in the final. As the home team, they get to choose the surface on which the tie is played. To the surprise of no one, they chose clay, the surface most likely to inconvenience Andy Murray, and if nothing else, wear him out. Murray will, yet again, be up to his eyebrows in work, if he isn’t already tuckered out by playing the World Tour Finals (on hardcourt) the week before. That’s how it goes when one player (or two siblings) shoulder the hopes of the entire team. It may be a match too far. Let’s hope not.

For too long, Britain have struggled for basic Davis Cup respectability, never mind thought about winning it. No more. The irresistible force that is British tennis, after falling into a slumber in 1936, trembles once more on the verge of glory. Expect Andrew Castle to become even more excited.