Britain's chances of winning this weekend's Davis Cup tie against Luxembourg were always likely to depend on Andy Murray and the world No 4 went into his first match at Glasgow's Braehead Arena last night with his team already trailing after James Ward was beaten 6-3, 7-6, 6-1 by Gilles Muller, the visiting squad's only player of international class.
Ward was attempting to bridge a 106-place gap in the world rankings but never looked capable of doing so against an opponent who gave Rafael Nadal a run for his money at Wimbledon only a fortnight ago. Muller, the world No 81, has a big serve, a bold forehand and sound volleys and rarely looked in danger of losing the opening rubber of this Europe Africa Zone Group Two tie, the winners of which will go into a promotion play-off against Belarus or Hungary in September. The 28-year-old Muller also a wealth of experience, having won 43 of his 59 Davis Cup rubbers since making his debut 11 years ago.
Murray was meeting Laurent Bram last night in the first day's second singles rubber, with the two men set to renew acquaintance in today's doubles. The Scot is due to partner his brother Jamie, while Bram is scheduled to team up with Mike Vermeer, although the visiting team may well turn to Muller given that they may need to win the doubles to stand any chance of overall victory. The reverse singles will be played tomorrow.
Muller served with power and precision, came in with confidence behind his serve and generally looked at ease on his ground strokes. Ward, who had won five of his previous six Davis Cup rubbers, trailed throughout. Nevertheless, he had his chances in the second set, only to fall away badly after losing the tie-break.
Breaks of serve are always at a premium against opponents like Muller and Ward could have done without making a slow start. The 24-year-old Londoner, who came into the tie fresh from the best grass-court season of his career, looked tight and was 0-3 down in no time at all, having dropped his serve with three forehand errors and a double fault. He failed to win more than two points in any of his opponent's service games in the first set, which Muller took in 29 minutes.
In the second set, however, Ward began to get a much better read on Muller's serve and at 4-3 he broke for the first time. The only problem was that Muller, too, was also making regular inroads into his opponent's service games. Ward saved 12 break points in the set, twice coming back from 0-40 down, but failed to serve out at 5-3. Muller saved a set point at 4-5 with a classic piece of serve-and-volley play and went on to win the tie-break 7-4, closing out the set with two unreturned serves.
Ward's response in the third set was disappointing. When he served at 15-30 in the second game the Briton hit an easy smash directly at Muller, who put it straight back past him for a winner. On the next point, under pressure from the quality of Muller's return, Ward put a backhand long to give his opponent an early break. Two games later Ward's eighth double fault of the match handed Muller another break point, which he converted when the world No 187 missed a forehand.
If Ward saved some face by holding serve at 0-5, it was only momentarily delaying the inevitable. Muller duly served out for victory, which he completed after two hours and three minutes with his 16th ace of the match.
Davis Cup Schedule
*Luxembourg lead Great Britain 1-0
*Yesterday G Muller bt J Ward 6-3, 7-6, 6-1 A Murray v L Bram (late)
*Today A Murray & J Murray v Bram & M Yermeer
*Tomorrow A Murray v Muller; Ward v Bram
*TV British Eurosport 2Reuse content