Leon Smith had no easy task. From the very first moment the Great Britain captain had to decide which players to bring to Madrid. Every detail could make a difference to the miracle of making it to the final. This is the story of one of the four semi-finalist teams in Break Point: A Davis Cup Story, which will be released on 26 November.
The 2019 tennis year started in Australia. A few weeks later, an image from there circulated around the world: a tearful Andy Murray announced his retirement from professional tennis. The 32-year-old British player explained that it was becoming unbearable to continue with the pelvic pain that he had suffered in recent years. On 28 January he underwent a second operation on his right hip.
What few at that time could imagine is that seven months later, Andy would be playing tennis again. The surgery had gone well. With no pressure he was gradually entering the frame in tournaments as diverse as the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati and the Challenger in Mallorca. He tried his luck with the Asian tour although he didn't reach the final rounds in any of the three tournaments. But he had measured himself against players such as Matteo Berrettini, Alex De Minaur, Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem and the experience had not been bad at all. Back in Europe, he entered – and won – the tournament in Antwerp, beating Stan Wawrinka in the final, world No.18 at the time. That was 20 October and two days later, the British Davis Cup captain Leon Smith had to announce the players that he was going to take to Madrid to fight for the title.
The format of the new Davis Cup was demanding as it was played over just one week but at the same time it was clear to everyone that Andy deserved to be on the team, and this was announced by Smith. Accompanying Andy was another essential team member: his brother Jamie, a respected player who reached world No.1 as a doubles specialist in 2016. But besides the two of them, Smith had a tough decision. He chose the other three from among several contenders and eventually Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund were to travel for the singles. The fifth man was a real rookie: Neal Skupski, whom Jamie had chosen as a regular circuit partner. He had played an impressive 22 matches with him in the last three months. No other pair had prepared in the same way for the Davis Cup.
A difficult path
The group phase, with Kazakhstan and the Netherlands, provided a puzzle for Great Britain. Andy played the first match, but he suffered a lot to beat the Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor, world No.167, and needed more than three hours to do so. The victory generated more doubts than certainties. It had been physically very demanding for Andy. Then, defeat for Evans gave Jamie and Skupski a chance to put all their work of the previous months into practice, and they didn't fail.
On the second day even before playing Kazakhstan, there was no respite. To start with, there was a (half) surprise: Edmund was appointed to replace Murray and in two sets he beat Mikhail Kukushkin to open the score 1-0. But Evans lost his singles match and again, the doubles was going to be key to victory and to allow Great Britain to progress to the quarter-finals.
Just two points!
Germany was waiting for them there. The chances for both were very even and there was no room for error. And again the question: would Murray play? And the answer, which the team guarded closely, was confirmed within the time limit set by the rules. Edmund would again play in his place. Smith had got it right again. Edmund beat the ever-fighting Philipp Kohlschreiber and Evans finally managed to score a victory. It was dramatic though; he beat Jan-Lennard Struff in the third set tie-break. Many hours later, after one o'clock in the morning, Great Britain knew who would be their opponent in the semi-finals. Spain had won their quarter-final against Argentina.
Britain had the toughest rival of all to look forward to. Not only because of Rafa Nadal. The Caja Mágica promised to be almost full to its 12,000 capacity. Murray had made a desperate rallying cry hours earlier on his social networks – for his federation to fund the attendance of British fans at the stadium.
And again the same doubt: would Murray himself be on the court? But again it was the same answer. No. Edmund had settled his two matches with confidence in the previous days and it was a good guarantee against the Spanish. And Murray's physical discomfort had still not disappeared. And Evans, for his part, would have to face the tremendous obstacle of beating Rafa Nadal. Edmund beat Feliciano Lopez in two sets, but Evans only withstood Nadal's onslaught in the first set with a hard-fought 64 but conceded the second 60.
For Jamie and Skupski their moment arrived again, with a Spain that opted to use the same pair: Nadal and Lopez in the doubles. Skupski had never faced a player like Nadal, but he had to overcome him. Feliciano was not so successful, but Rafa used all his power and resources, whilst the British had the technique, tactics and movement of true specialists. The encounter was a true battle; also one of nerves. And at the end the slightest of differences gave Spain a place in the final 76(3) 76(8). The match had lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes and had been a real spectacle charged with the greatest emotion. Spain had won 87 points and Great Britain 85.