Who needs Andy Murray? The world No 2 made himself unavailable for the weekend’s Davis Cup tie against Russia here in Coventry, but in his absence James Ward and Dan Evans yesterday completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in British history.
In winning this Europe Africa Zone Group One contest 3-2, Britain won from 2-0 down for the first time since Bunny Austin and friends beat Germany on clay at Queen’s Club in London 83 years ago.
After Ward and Evans had both lost desperately tight five-set matches on Friday, Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray kept the tie alive with victory in the doubles on Saturday, but there was still plenty of work to be done in yesterday’s reverse singles against the 2006 Davis Cup champions.
Ward, however, levelled the tie with a thrilling comeback against Dmitry Tursunov, winning 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, before Evans completed the victory with a stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 win over Evgeny Donskoy. Between them, the two Britons bridged a total gap of 392 places in the world rankings.
The victory takes Britain to within one win of a return to the Davis Cup’s elite World Group, where they last played in 2008. Leon Smith’s team will next play in September – when Murray has said he will make himself available – against opponents to be decided by a draw this Wednesday.
It is quite a change from 2010, when Britain suffered their most humiliating defeat in the Davis Cup’s 113 years when they lost to Lithuania in John Lloyd’s last match as captain and were within one defeat of falling into Group Three, the competition’s lowest tier, in Smith’s first match in charge.
“Today was outstanding,” Smith said last night. “It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in my time in British tennis. What James did today was a phenomenal effort. He went through the pain barrier mentally, physically and emotionally. Then Dan bossed his match from start to finish.”
He added: “I told the players at the start of the week that I genuinely thought we had a chance of causing an upset. I’m not surprised by what we achieved today because of the way we played on Friday.”
Smith has built a fine team spirit and the weekend brought vindication of his controversial decision to select Evans. Although the 22-year-old from Birmingham has performed well on national duty in the past and has bags of talent, his attitude has all too often been called into question. Even after his opening defeat here to Tursunov, Evans admitted that he does not reproduce his Davis Cup form elsewhere because he does not work hard enough.
Ward played one of the matches of his life to beat Tursunov, who at No 67 in the world rankings had an advantage of 147 places. The 30-year-old Russian has great experience, having helped his country win the Davis Cup seven years ago and won seven titles on the main tour.
Tension, nevertheless, can get to most players and the warning Tursunov received for his obscene reaction to the partisan crowd during the third set was evidence of the pressure he felt under Ward’s onslaught.
The 26-year-old Londoner was aggressive from the start, attacking Tursunov’s second serve and always trying to keep the hard-hitting Russian on the back foot. Ward, whose world ranking at No 214 would surely be higher had he not suffered a broken wrist which kept him off court for the last four months of 2012, served superbly, cracking 33 aces.
Ward took the opening set with a single break and had chances to win the second before being broken for the first time when serving at 5-6. The momentum appeared to have swung decisively when Tursunov took the third set, but Ward quickly got on top in the fourth.
When the Russian served at 2-2 and 30-30 in the decider Ward won the best rally of the match after turning courageous defence into exhilarating attack. On the subsequent break point Tursunov double-faulted. Ward does not often show his emotions, but by now he was urging the crowd to turn up the volume. Outwardly at least he was a model of calm when he served out for the match, hitting two aces in the final game.
The stage was then set for Evans to complete an extraordinary weekend. The British No 6 made few errors and was always looking to attack Donskoy, who took a set off Murray last month and is ranked 245 places higher than Evans at No 80 in the world.
Having taken the first set by breaking in the seventh game, Evans won the second despite a mini revival by Donskoy, who retrieved an early break. By the third, in which Evans won the first 11 points, the Russian looked spent mentally and on the second match point he hit a forehand wide.
Forty-eight hours earlier Evans had said he was “pretty bad at my job” after admitting he did not train hard enough. After this win, however, he said he would go into his next tournament, on clay in Munich, in a more positive frame of mind. “Whatever anyone else might say, I do really want to go up the rankings,” he insisted. “That’s the main goal for me.”
Davis Cup: Tie details
* Great Britain beat Russia 3-2
D Evans lost to D Tursunov 6-4, 6-7, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4; J Ward lost to E Donskoy 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 8-6
C Fleming & J Marray bt I Kunitsyn & V Baluda 6-1, 6-4, 6-2
Ward beat Tursunov 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4; Evans beat Donskoy 6-4, 6-4, 6-1