Absent friends, and fans, can't halt Brit pack

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It took a win over opponents who were not even ranked in the world's top 1,000 to complete it, but Britain's Davis Cup team finally ended the longest losing run in their history here yesterday. After five successive defeats, victory over Turkey in a relegation play-off ensured that it would be the visitors who will compete next season in Europe/Africa Zone Group Three, the lowest tier.

Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming, Nos 46 and No 47 respectively in the world doubles rankings, gave Leon Smith's team a match-winning 3-0 lead by beating Ergun Zorlu and Haluk Akkoyun 6-3 6-4 6-4. Given that the Turks are ranked Nos 1,134 and 1,136 in the world respectively it was no less than the home team should have expected, but after their humiliating loss against Lithuania four months ago nothing was being taken for granted.

While there will be no open-topped bus ride along the seafront to celebrate, the manner of Britain's victory, with only one set dropped in the first three rubbers, confirmed the impression that there is a good spirit within the squad and a shared sense of purpose under Smith, who is making his debut as captain.

"The feeling of losing five in a row obviously wasn't great," Smith said. "This is one step in the right direction, but it is only one. We realise that. We won't get carried away. The guys have done a great job here, but it is only one step. But I think you can see from the spirit on the court and on the bench that we're all really united in trying to improve things."

Eastbourne is packed at this time of the year, but the pier, beach and seafront concerts were clearly a greater attraction than a group of tennis players whose names – including those of the home team – would have been unfamiliar to most people.

Devonshire Park would no doubt have been more than half full if Andy Murray had been playing, but the world No 4 missed the tie in order to concentrate on his own schedule.

The Scot's decision still aggrieves some in British tennis, but many of the game's top players pick and choose their Davis Cup ties. Moreover, Murray's absence has given others the chance to play for their country and, even more importantly, to win matches. It is hard to see what Murray beating lowly-ranked opponents here would have achieved either for himself or for the national team.

In the absence of Murray, who had sent the team a good luck message, it had been down to Jamie Baker and James Ward to pave the way with singles victories on the opening day. Ward beat Marsel Ilhan, who is ranked 198 places ahead of him and was the highest ranked singles player in action here.

Fleming and Skupski are now regulars on the main ATP tour and their superiority was apparent from the start. Zorlu's ragged backhand would not look entirely out of place in one of Eastbourne's parks, while Akkoyun's serve always looked vulnerable.

The only time the Britons appeared in any sort of discomfort was in the sixth game of the first set, when a full-blooded Zorlu smash hit Skupski in the neck after the Liverpudlian had lost his footing. Skupski looked shaken – "I felt like I'd been shot," he said – but he recovered his composure.

One break of Zorlu's serve in the eighth game secured the first set. Akkoyun was broken at the start of the second, only for Skupski, who had not conceded a single point in his three previous service games, to drop his serve immediately afterwards. Akkoyun, however, was broken again at 4-4, after which Skupski served out for the set.

The Turks never let their heads drop, but at 3-3 in the third set Akkoyun was broken again. Fleming served out for victory at 5-3, Skupski hitting the winning volley.

Victory means that Britain will stay in Europe/Africa Zone Group Two next season. Their next match will be in March, against opponents to be decided by a draw in September. Might Murray play in the next tie? "When he wants to come back in the team of course we'll love that because he's one of the world's best players," Smith said.