Aged almost 30, Neal Skupski made his Davis Cup debut when he was called up to the 2019 Finals and, alongside Jamie Murray, was just two points away from taking Great Britain to the final.
Sometimes the best sporting moments are slow in coming and are a reward for perseverance. That could be at least part of doubles player Neal Skupski’s story; he didn't win his first title until he was 28 and didn't make his Davis Cup debut until he was 29. Together with his older brother Ken, also a doubles player, he gained his first experiences as a semi-professional after completing his university studies. 2019 marked a turning point when he and Jamie Murray paired up to form one of the most solid partnerships on the international scene. That year, before travelling to Madrid for the Finals, they made the semi-finals at the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati and Shanghai and in the US Open, where they almost beat the number one pair Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah.
What is the first Davis Cup match you remember?
I remember… Tim Henman playing against Jim Courier one time, when Great Britain played against the USA. That was many years ago. And another time would probably be when my brother first played – I have great memories of him playing in Eastbourne with… Colin Fleming, so that was a proud moment for our family. And then ever since that day I wanted to play as well.
What does the Davis Cup mean to you?
The Davis Cup’s huge. For everyone who doesn’t know what it’s all about, it’s probably the World Cup of tennis… like it is in soccer and football. For me, it’s one of the biggest things apart from the Grand Slams and to have the opportunity to play last year in Madrid was an incredible thing.
“...having someone like Andy Murray in the team gave us a big boost but we didn’t really know if he was going to be available…”
Did the pressure of representing you country affect your game in any way?
I think for me the biggest thing is to play for your country… playing in the Davis Cup was a huge goal of mine and I’ve achieved that now and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought I played good tennis with Jamie throughout the week and hopefully I can do that again… next year in 2021 hopefully after we’ve got through this pandemic.
How was your experience in 2019?
I got a phone call off Leon the captain… I’d been picked, which was incredible for me and my family. ...Having someone like Andy Murray in the team gave us a big boost but we didn’t really know if he was going to be available, if he was fit or not. And then we went over to Madrid, and we didn’t know what to expect. We just thought, if we give it our all and try and play the best tennis possible, we had a good team, we just didn’t know how far we could go. Unfortunately we had Andy pick up a slight injury at the start of the week… but then Kyle stepped in and played incredible tennis... I thought we had a great team, Evans as well, always tricky... Then we had me and Jamie, a solid doubles team, so I thought we could do well, we just didn’t know how far we could go. We made it to the semi-finals and we came up against a spirited Spain team.
What is Spain like as a rival?
The Spanish team, they’re stacked... They’ve got great players. We came up against Rafa and Feliciano Lopez in the doubles, but they also had… Carreno Busta, Bautista Agut, Granollers... Spain are a tough team, especially in Madrid, I mean the crowd there was incredible, it was like 12 or 13 thousand people there, the atmosphere was electric. Because I think Spain had probably played on Centre Court the whole time, we’d played on Court 2 or 3 during our group stages and the quarter-finals against Germany, but that’s going to be an experience I’ll never forget.
“Nadal gives everything, every point. Even if he’s down, he’s losing, he’ll fight till the end, he never likes to give points away and that’s what we came across in the doubles in Madrid when we lost.”
Never before had you faced a tennis player with the record and experience that Rafa Nadal enjoys...
Rafa Nadal, he’s the Spanish bull. He’s incredible, he’s one of the greatest of all time with Roger and Novak and I put Andy in there as well. They’ve been incredible for tennis in the last 15 years and they’re still going. They’ve still got many Grand Slams to win. He could end up with the highest Grand Slams of all time. [He’s an] amazing guy on the clay, gives everything, every point. Even if he’s down, he’s losing, he’ll fight till the end, he never likes to give points away and that’s what we came across in the doubles in Madrid when we lost.
That encounter was really close (76 76). Did you think it was possible and did you see yourselves in the final?
...We would take one match at a time and we obviously knew if we won that match we were going to the final but we weren’t looking that far ahead. I thought we had a great chance against them, against Nadal and Lopez, but they were better on the day and they had the fans behind them. I think they deserved it but… one point either way we could have got to a third set and maybe have won the match but... I think it was a fair result and it was a huge result for Spain.
How much did you know about Bautista’s absence and what had happened?
I’m not sure when we found out... I guess when they put their team selection in and he wasn’t going to play but we knew, kind of, the story behind it. But it was great for him to come back during the final and win that singles – I don’t know how he actually did it. Incredible, just like Rafa, incredible fighter. Fights till the end, gives everything. But that’s basically the Spanish team really. They fight and they make you make mistakes.
Don’t miss out! Learn more about Neal Skupski and the British team in the documentary Break Point: A Davis Cup Story. Access it here