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Steve Flink: Great Britain Topples United States In Davis Cup

2/4/2014 7:00:00 PM

By Steve Flink

They put down an exquisite red clay court at Petco Park in San Diego, hoping that might tip the scales in their favor. They wanted to make Andy Murray compete on perhaps his weakest surface. They were looking to allow the Bryan twins to become nearly impossible to beat. And yet, in the end, the British contingent was too good for the Americans in the opening round of the 2014 World Group in Davis Cup, moving on to the quarterfinals, performing remarkably well in foreign surroundings. Great Britain toppled the U.S. 3-1, with Murray capturing both of his singles matches and James Ward coming through admirably to win his singles contest on the opening day.

The chances of an American triumph in California were sharply reduced from the beginning. John Isner upended Roger Federer on indoor clay at Switzerland two years ago as the U.S. won that tie. Later that season, the towering Isner stopped Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in France when the Americans prevailed there. Isner won all four of his matches in those two ties. Isner, of course, can be formidable on any surface. His serve is one of the premier weapons on the modern game. But he was hurt, and therefore unavailable to play in San Diego. A resurgent Donald Young—who reached the third round at the Australian Open—stepped in to play for his country.

But he never really had a chance against a top of the line Murray in the opening match. Murray took apart the left-handed American purposefully. Murray eclipsed Young decisively in straight sets, succeeding largely on the strength of his second serve returns. He took those returns early, sent them into the distant corners, and kept Young constantly off guard and ill at ease. Murray was pushed to two deuces in his opening service game but held on despite some fine play off the forehand from Young. Murray proceeded to collect 16 of the next 19 points in no time flat, opening up a 5-0 lead, establishing his indisputable superiority in the process.

Murray won that set 6-1. From 1-1 in the second set, Murray pulled away once more, winning five of the next six games, breaking Young twice. That set went to Murray 6-2. On they went to the third set, and Young was commendable, playing his best tennis of the match, making Murray work harder to finish off the task. After Murray had taken a 3-1 lead, Young fought diligently to hold in the fifth game after two deuces. He then created his only break points of the match with Murray serving in the sixth game. The British standout was down 15-40, but he aced Young down the T at 136 MPH. The next point featured Andy Murray at his very best. He released a backhand drop shot down the line to draw the American in. Young slid his backhand down the line with good depth, but Murray took it on the half-volley, lobbing over Young down the line for a dazzling winner.

Murray eventually held on his fourth game point for 4-2. Young obstinately saved a break point in the following game, but Murray promptly held at 15 and then broke Young again to complete a comprehensive 6-1,6-2, 6-3 victory. The score-line might suggest that Young was humiliated by a two-time major singles champion, but that was not the case. Young played much better than the score would suggest, opening up the court whenever possible off his forehand side, doing some damage with his first serve, competing honorably. But, in the end, Young could not prevent Murray from breaking down his backhand with a barrage of crosscourt forehands, and he was unable to stop the British No. 1 from crushing those second serve returns. No disgrace in that.

Great Britain had built a 1-0 lead in the best of five match format. That set the stage for the pivotal match of the tie between Sam Querrey and Ward. Querrey had lost their only previous encounter at Queen’s Club on the grass in the round of 16 three years ago. But Querrey was heavily favored to be the victor this time on the clay in San Diego. The 26-year-old American has finished among the top 50 in the world for five of the last six years. Although he is better on hard courts, Querrey is not uncomfortable on clay. Querrey was representing his country in his home state. The evidence pointed to a Querrey triumph in three or four sets.

All was going according to plan for the American. He took the first set commandingly 6-1 in under half an hour. Querrey was serving superbly and controlling the tempo of play with his explosive forehand. The second set went to a tie-break as Ward gradually cast aside his nerves and began doing a better job from the back of the court. At 3-3 in the tie-break, Querrey netted a low forehand volley, and that was the critical point. Ward took that sequence 7-3 to reach one set all. Querrey, however, buckled down swiftly, opening up a 3-0 third set lead. He took that set 6-3, holding at love in the ninth game with absolute assurance.

Querrey was right where he wanted to be, up two sets to one. He then established a 2-0 lead in the fourth set, and even had a break point for 3-0 that might have put him permanently out of reach. Ward saved it with an unstoppable first serve to the backhand. He held on, but Querrey saved a breakpoint on his way to 3-1 and then held at love for 4-2. He was two holds away from bringing the U.S. back to 1-1. Querrey had yet to lose his serve, and now all he had to do was maintain his composure, protect his lead and close the deal. But Ward was ready to raise the stakes, and Querrey was not prepared for his opponent’s higher standards.

Ward held at 30 for 3-4 and then made his move in the eighth game. Querrey saved a break point, but then played a backhand drop volley that sat up. Ward easily drove a forehand passing shot for a winner and broke Querrey for 4-4 as the American erred off the forehand. Ward won a hard fought game on his serve in the ninth game. Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Querrey fell behind 0-40. He rallied to 30-40 but subsequently lost a crucial 22 stroke rally with a netted forehand down the line. Improbably, Ward had secured four games in a row to take the match into a fifth set.

Querrey still should have had the edge in a Davis Cup clash on native soil, but he must have been mystified by what happened at the end ofthe fourth set, and the American was thoroughly outplayed in the fifth set. Ward held at 15 for 1-0. With Querrey serving at 30-40 in the second game, Ward’s excellent return of serve set up a backhand crosscourt winner for the break. Ward held at 15 for 3-0, employing the drop shot twice in that game. At 40-15, he sent a backhand drop shot down the line, luring Querrey in.

Ward was ready for the American’s response, rolling a topspin lob winner down the line off the backhand. Ward’s inner conviction was apparent. He broke Querrey again for 4-0. He had secured eight consecutive games from a break down in the fourth set. In the fifth set, Ward had swept 16 of 21 points.  Despite losing his serve in the fifth game, he did not falter down the stretch, defeating a deflated and inexplicably tame Querrey 1-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. 

Ward had stepped up with vigor, overtaking Querrey by dictating off the forehand, serving with more power and accuracy, coming at his opponent with quiet fury. But Querrey injured himself with his timidity once he lost his lead in the fourth set. How could a veteran competitor with a prodigious serve get broken four times in a row after not losing his delivery once up until the middle of the fourth set? How could he not regroup in the fifth and reassert his authority? Why was he so passive when everything was on the line at the end?

The Bryan brothers restored some order on Saturday afternoon with a typically spirited and strategically sound display in the doubles. They defeated Colin Fleming and Dominic Inglot in four sets, but never looked like they would lose. The left-handed Bob Bryan and his twin brother Mike are magnificent on any surface. Many consider them the best partnership of all time. They have won 15 majors together, and have reached ten other finals atthe Grand Slam championships. They have collected 93 titles altogether as a tandem. They are magnificent on any surface, but perhaps most untouchable on clay. The Bryans took the first set over the British pair 6-2, then sealed the second 6-3.

With the left-handed Bob Bryan returning well from the deuce court and his brother Bob even more stellar from the ad court, the Americans seemed certain to win in straight sets. But then Fleming and Inglot played an outstanding return game to break Bob Bryan in the sixth game of the third set. At break point down, Bryan served wide to Fleming’s backhand in the ad court, but the British player timed his return impeccably, making a brilliant, winning return. The British team took that set 6-3. But the Americans remained unflustered. They broke for a 2-0 fourth set lead and never looked back. The Americans dropped only three points in four service games across that last set, recording a 6-2, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 triumph.

That meant it was up to Querrey to find a way to beat Murray. Great Britain still led 2-1, and Murray could ensure his nation of a team victory by winning over the American. The first two sets were hard fought and well played by both players. Murray seemed apprehensive in the opening set.  He returned brilliantly in the opening game of the contest and broke. Murray was comfortably ahead 3-1, but Querrey broke back for 3-3 with a running crosscourt backhand passing shot winner. Murray retaliated boldly by breaking in the seventh game, as Querrey narrowly missed with an inside-out forehand at break point down. Murray served for that opening set at 5-4 but his forehand let him down badly in that game. Querrey, meanwhile, struck gold. At breakpoint, he ran around his backhand for a second serve return, producing a scintillating inside-out forehand winner.

It was 5-5. Both players held for 6-6 to set up a tie-break, and Murray was fortunate to survive in that sequence. Querrey drove a penetrating flat backhand down the line to open up a wide avenue for a forehand winner behind Murray. The American thus moved ahead 4-2. Murray made it back to 4-4 before Querrey released a neatly executed forehand drop volley winner off a telegraphed forehand crosscourt passing shot from Murray.

Now serving at 4-5, Murray won two points in a row to shift the burden of pressure back onto the shoulders of Querrey. The American—now set point down at 5-6—had control of the point after shifting from defense to offense. He came forward for a forehand drop volley, with the court open for an apparent winner. But Querrey netted that volley, and the set belonged to the better percentage player.

Both players served proficiently in the second set and backed up their deliveries adeptly. Murray dropped only five points in six service games en route to another tie-break while Querrey conceded only eight points on his serve. Both players had only one break point opportunity. In the tie-break, Querrey missed only one first serve and did not make a single unforced error. The American prevailed 7-3 with a disciplined and determined stand.

It was one set all. But then Murray took his game to another level altogether. His third set performance was nothing short of stupendous. He gave nothing away, defended with alacrity and supreme ball control, attacked judiciously, and demonstrated supreme versatility. This was Andy Murray demonstrating that very few players can be as inventive. He broke Querrey in the opening game of that fourth set after the American led 30-0. He held easily for 2-0 as Querrey’s backhand went awry. Now Murray was soaring in every way, pulling out every shot in the book, making Querrey work inordinately hard, constructing points that were designed to induce fatigue.

In the third game, Murray was breathtaking. On the run, he released a backhand topspin lob that forced an overhead mistake from Querrey. A superb forehand inside-in, sidespin drop shot from Murray was more than Querrey could handle. 0-30. After Querrey hit an overhead winner, Murray connected immaculately with a backhand passing shot winner down the line on the fullstretch. 15-40. An understandably shaken Querrey missed a forehand down the line off Murray’s return. Murray had the break at 15 for 3-0, and then he held easily at 30 for 4-0. With Querrey serving at 1-5, an unrelenting Murray refused to let his guard down for instant. On his fourth set point, Murray broke Querrey for the third time in the set.

Murray had masterfully moved Querrey from side to side all across the third set, leaving the American gasping for air at times. He fundamentally took the American’s legs away, exploring the boundaries of the court, forcing Querrey to cover far too much ground. Murray was down 15-40 in the opening game of the fourth set but Querrey missed a backhand down the line that was not in the cards, and Murray laced a forehand inside-in to coax a forehand error from Querrey. That brought Murray back to deuce. He held on for 1-0. Querrey battled on gamely but at 2-3 he missed four out of five first serves and Murray pounced. On the penultimate point of that game, Murray was falling backwards but still managed to make an astounding inside-out forehand drop shot winner on the line. Murray achieved the break at 15 for 4-2, and held at 15 for 5-2. Querrey comported himself well. He saved a match point in the eighth game with a first serve that Murray could not get back in play off the forehand. Murray served for the match at 5-3 and double faulted to trail 15-40, but he outmaneuvered his opponent to save two break points. A superb forehand inside-out winner gave Murray a second match point and he wrapped it up when Querrey drove a backhand crosscourt return wide. Murray fittingly got it done for Great Britain with that 7-6(5), 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-3 victory over Querrey. The American could not be faulted for his performance against Murray, which was impressive in many ways. The baffling thing about Querrey was his collapse against Ward. He should have exploited his experience in that contest and found a way to win. The Americans had to succeed in that match, and Querrey let his team down with  a disconcerting performance.

Be that as it may, this was much more a triumph for Great Britain than a failure for the United States. Murray played the major leadership role, and Ward contributed significantly as an understudy. For the first time since 1935, the British have defeated the U.S. in a Davis Cup tie.  Not since 1903 had the British beaten the Americans in the U.S. Meanwhile, for the first time since 1986, Great Britain has made it to the quarterfinals of the World Group in Davis Cup. They did not get there by accident.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.