Murray, of course, has made a habit out of establishing himself as the first since the estimable Perry to realize various lofty feats. Murray took his first Grand Slam tournament singles title at the U.S. Open in 2012; Perry had been the last British man to rule at that event 76 years earlier. The following year, Murray secured the Wimbledon singles title, succeeding the 1934-36 titlist Perry as the first British male to take the most coveted crown in tennis, ending a 77 year drought in the process. Meanwhile, Murray also recorded an enormously significant triumph by garnering the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games on the same Centre Court of Wimbledon, and that was something even the redoubtable Perry never had the chance to do.
Indisputably, Murray has taken his share of hard knocks over the years. A long line of skeptics have pointed to his passivity in the critical stages of many important appointments. They have periodically questioned his resolve, treated him roughly for cursing too much and not having enough composure, and picked him apart for seemingly not doing himself full justice as a player of the front rank. But now Murray has added another crucial feather in his cap to back up the two majors and the Olympic gold medal he had already collected. Those are soaring achievements.
During the past weekend at Ghent on the indoor clay, Murray capped off a towering Davis Cup season by taking two singles skirmishes and the doubles alongside his brother, leading Great Britain to a 3-1, final round victory over Belgium. In many ways, this was Murray’s finest hour, surpassing in many ways the stellar work he has done when competing on his own and succeeding at the sport’s most heralded places.
Perhaps John Barrett is uniquely qualified to appreciate the depth and scope of Murray’s outstanding work over this past weekend and across the entire Davis Cup campaign waged by Great Britain. This esteemed historian—the leading voice of the BBC for more than 35 years starting in the seventies, a Davis Cup player for the British in the sixties, and a player on their squads before that—was overjoyed when I got in touch with him to get his reflections on Sunday.
Putting the British triumph in perspective from his standpoint, the 84-year-old Barrett said, “For me this has been an emotional weekend, one I thought I would never witness in my lifetime. Watching Great Britain’s 3-1 win over Great Britain in Ghent to win the 2015 Davis Cup was an almost surreal experience. I grew up in the post-World War ll years as a keen young teenage tennis player listening to my father recounting the heroic deeds of Fred Perry and Bunny Austin in the 1930s at Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup. These two were my heroes.
“Little did I think then that I would one day play at Wimbledon and become a Davis Cup player myself. Nor could I have imagined that I would spend four years in the early sixties as captain of Britain’s Davis Cup team, in the second year working alongside Fred Perry who had been appointed Manager. I had already met Fred many times, but that year I got to know him and his wife Bobby really well and we remained good friends for the rest of his life. I was lucky to have some great players in my teams—men like Mike Sangster, Bobby Wilson, Billy Knight, Mike Davies, Allen Mills and Tony Pickard. We dreamed every year of winning the Cup but the best we did was reach the final of the European Zone. European clay was always our undoing.”
Now it was time for Barrett—a man so widely accomplished and deeply admired by everyone in the tennis world that he was fittingly inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July of 2014—to explain just how unlikely it seemed even recently that his country could take the top honor in this era, even with the formidable Murray leading the lineup.
As he explained it to me on Sunday evening, “I can still hardly believe that, after a gap of 79 years, Great Britain are once more holders of the Davis Cup. Like so many of us involved in British tennis, I have at times found it a painful experience supporting our teams over the past few years. In 2010, we had lost 3-2 in Lithuania in the first round of the Europe/Africa Zone, Group ll, and were in danger of being relegated to Group lll or IV with the minnows where ties consist of three rubbers instead of five. Fortunately, a 5-0 win against Turkey spared us that indignity.”
Barrett holds Andy Murray in the highest esteem, and rightly so. As he puts it, “This year the whole nation owes Andy an immense debt of gratitude. His unbeaten run of eight wins against the USA, France, Australia and Belgium, plus the three doubles successes with his brother Jamie in the last three rounds, are unique in Davis Cup history. It has been a heroic story that eclipses John McEnroe’s performance in 1982 when the American was also undefeated in eight Davis Cup rubbers but had others to carry the responsibility in doubles…Only those who have been through the fire of Davis Cup tennis will understand the unique pressures it brings. Andy Murray has come through those fires with magnificent courage and commitment. If he had been alive, Fred Perry would have been the first on court in Ghent this afternoon. ‘Well done, Andy,’ he would have said. ‘From first ball to last you believed.’”
In the decisive battle on Sunday, with Great Britain ahead 2-1 and counting on him in every way to finish the task right then and there, Murray was not found wanting. He took on Belgian No. 1 and world No. 16 David Goffin, a seasoned competitor appearing in front of a partisan home crowd. Although Murray had routed Goffin 6-1 6-0 only a few weeks before indoors at Paris on hard courts, he knew full well that Goffin would be decidedly more fired up for this far more consequential meeting. Both players were well aware that a “live” fifth match between the British rookie Kyle Edmund and Ruben Bemelmans would have favored the home team.
Clearly, Murray was once more shouldering an immense burden while simultaneously confronting a big opportunity. Both the burden and the opportunity were apparent as he went about his business in the early stages against Goffin. Yet, more than anything else, Murray conducted himself like the hard-edged and purposeful individual that he is. He was as ready for this meeting as he has been for any big match he has ever played, while recognizing that it was not going to be easy on a slow court against a capable adversary who was similarly motivated and thirsting to give the Belgian crowd what they wanted.
Murray had an early break point chance in the second game of the match, but Goffin erased it convincingly with a superb forehand inside-in winner, making up for a couple of unforced errors he had already made off the same flank. The Belgian held on for 1-1, and then had his own opening with Murray serving in the fifth game and the score locked at 2-2. But the British No. 1 saved a break point there with a deep second serve kicker eliciting an errant return. Murray moved to 3-2 and then broke at love in the sixth game with a flat backhand return winner off a weak second delivery from the Belgian. Throughout the match, the second serve returns of Murray were vastly superior to those of his opponent. Moreover, his first serve was more reliable and a larger weapon and he was the superior strategist, and much sounder in shaping the outcome of the baseline rallies.
Murray held at 15 for 5-2 with a nifty running forehand angled crosscourt winner that was preceded by some outstanding defending. The favorite had three set points in the following game but Goffin stood his ground. And yet, serving at 5-3 for the set, Murray allowed his adversary only one point, closing out that game with a wide serve in the deuce court setting up a forehand winner behind Goffin. Set to Murray, 6-3. He could hardly have been better.
Over the course of the second set, Goffin raised his level significantly, adding pace to his backhand, getting greater depth on his second serve, reducing his inefficiency off the forehand. Goffin had a break point for 2-0 that Murray wiped away with an unstoppable first serve down the T, but the Belgian’s growing confidence was unmistakable. He withstood a five deuce game on his serve and saved two break points before reaching 2-1. Now both men were backing up their serves ably. On their way to 5-5, Murray took 16 of his next 18 service points while Goffin was nearly as unyielding, winning 12 of 16 on his delivery. But Murray was ready to pounce in the eleventh game, and he did just that.
Goffin was serving at 5-5, 40-30 when he appeared to get a bad bounce. He left a shot way too short, and Murray stepped in for a cleanly produced forehand winner. Murray followed by rolling a high trajectory forehand to draw a forehand mistake from Goffin, who found himself down break point. Murray played it with cagey precision, coaxing another error off the forehand from Goffin with a crosscourt forehand that was too much for the Belgian to handle. Murray had the critical break for 6-5.
And yet, he faced a precarious moment just around the corner. The British competitor was down 0-30 in the twelfth game, and was playing defense on that pivotal point. He sent a backhand crosscourt without much on it, and Goffin saw an opening down the line. But the Belgian pressed, and missed that shot flagrantly. Murray then produced two unreturnable first serves in succession to reach set point at 40-30. He was stationed well behind the baseline and stretched out on his forehand side, but released a sparkling winner crosscourt to seal the set. Murray’s clutch shot lifted him into a commanding two sets to love lead.
Understandably, he suffered a brief letdown at the outset of the third set, losing his serve to trail 2-0, making three unprovoked mistakes in that game. For Goffin, a light was flickering, and a ray of cautious optimism was evident. But Murray extinguished it swiftly. He commenced the third game with an inside out backhand return winner. After losing the next point, he used a backhand drop shot to create an avenue for a topspin lob winner. At 15-30, Goffin approached forcefully behind a flat forehand to the Murray backhand, but was caught in his tracks by a breathtaking Murray crosscourt passing shot winner. Plainly shaken by the turn of events, Goffin was off target with an inside out forehand at 15-40. Murray had broken back for 1-2; more importantly, he had apparently punctured Goffin’s morale.
Murray held on for 2-2 before Goffin played an excellent game, unleashing three outright winners, holding for 3-2. Murray faced a break point in the sixth game, but he dealt with it impressively, going to the first serve down the T in the ad court, sticking with a winning recipe. Goffin predictably missed his forehand return. Murray served an ace for game point and then Goffin erred off the forehand again. Murray had advanced to 3-3. Goffin was running rapidly out of resources. Murray broke at love for 4-3, and then held in a deuce game for 5-3 with an ace. Goffin had given this contest everything he had, but it was not enough to stop a top of the line Murray, who came through on his second match point to finish his task with a scintillating topspin lob winner off the backhand.
Murry prevailed 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 with a first rate display of backcourt acumen, enabling his country to capture the Cup for the tenth time. Only the U.S. (32 titles), and Australia (28) have won more frequently. Murray became the first man ever to win eight “live” rubbers in a calendar year since the World Group was introduced in 1981. He is also only the third man to celebrate an 8-0 singles record in a calendar year, joining John McEnroe and Mats Wilander in that elite category. In turn, Murray is just the second player to win eleven singles and doubles rubbers combined in the history of the World Group; only Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia in 2005 has managed that considerable feat. Last but not least, Murray is the first since Pete Sampras in 1995 to record three live rubber victories in a Davis Cup Final.
The Belgians had elected to play the Final on clay in an attempt to thwart Murray, but the strategy backfired completely. He has improved markedly on the dirt over the years, especially in 2015 when he won a pair of clay court events including the Masters 1000 title in Madrid on his way to Roland Garros, where he reached the semifinals. Murray would not have cared if they had played on ice; he was ready to compete with his customary ferocity no matter what the situation, regardless of the surface.
The Great Britain-Belgium Davis Cup Final began with Edmund catching an apprehensive Goffin thoroughly off guard. The big underdog was firing away freely off the forehand, beating Goffin repeatedly to the punch, and controlling the tempo with surprising self-assurance. He captured the first two sets decisively, but thereafter he faded physically while Goffin found his range. The Belgian was victorious 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0. By the middle of the fourth set, Edmund was spent. Up next was Murray, who took on the aggressive left-hander Ruben Bemelmans.
Bemelmans came at Murray hard, refusing to get engaged in long rallies, looking for every chance to disrupt the rhythm of the British player. Over the first two sets, however, the Belgian had little success. Murray allowed his adversary only five games in that span, but the attacking Belgian nearly took the match into a fourth set. Murray was serving at 4-5, 30-30 in the third set when he double faulted for the first time. Now set point down, Murray missed his first serve. The last thing he wanted was to play another set, to spend another 45 arduous minutes on the court, to waste his energy supply.
He delivered a decent second serve kicker to the southpaw’s forehand, and Bemelmans went for the big return down the line. He did not come even close. A highly charged Murray held on, broke at love for 6-5 with three dazzling winners off the forehand, and held at 30 for the match, sweeping eleven of the last thirteen points. Victory went to the British stalwart 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
That set the stage for an entertaining doubles duel, pitting Andy and Jamie Murray against Goffin and Steve Darcis. Darcis had been expected to play in the singles after winning the decisive match in the semifinals against Argentina. But he had been replaced by Bemelmans because, presumably, his game did not stack up well against Murray’s. In the doubles, Darcis played the Ad Court, and at the outset he was more dependable and bolder than Goffin. Darcis largely gave his team a chance to succeed in the opening set, which was locked at 4-4. Andy Murray was down break point in the ninth game.
Murray kicked a second serve up high to the one-handed backhand side of Darcis, and the Belgian could not handle the return. Murray held on. Unsurprisingly, the British pair broke Goffin in the following game to seal the set 6-4. With the left-handed Jamie Murray in the Deuce Court and his renowned brother playing the Ad Court, the British team exploited an uncertain Goffin. On set point, Murray followed his return in. He made a solid volley, and Darcis missed from the backcourt. Great Britain had the lead, mainly because of Andy Murray’s excellence, to a lesser extent because Jamie Murray was the most accomplished and natural doubles player on the court.
Despite staying back on first and second serves almost entirely, the Belgians somehow stayed in the battle. They played an inspired second set, breaking a still somewhat uneasy Jamie Murray in the third game, holding their own serves unfailingly. At 5-4, Darcis held at love. It was one set all. The Belgian crowd approved whole-heartedly.
At 1-1 in the third set, Jamie Murray was broken for the second time in the match. The duo from Belgium was building momentum. But the British pair retaliated swiftly, breaking Darcis as Jamie Murray came alive and raised his level of play substantially. They broke Goffin for 4-2 before Jamie Murray lost his delivery in the seventh game, but that was a momentary setback. Darcis was steadily deteriorating. He was broken at love in the eighth game.
True to form, Andy Murray served out the set at 5-3 with firm resolve. The Murray brothers were ahead two sets to one, and they never looked back, breaking Darcis twice in the fourth set, gaining a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Jamie Murray’s tennis was increasingly admirable over the last two sets, but Andy Murray was the best player on the court. He never lost his serve. He refused to lose his nerve. He helped to bring the best out of his brother.
When Andy Murray took the decisive match from Goffin, his teammates rushed on court to join in his joy. He was immensely proud of what he had done, not just on this day but across the entire season, in each and every round. He displayed considerable character by making certain to suspend the British celebration briefly while he went over to the Belgian bench to shake hands with their captain and entire contingent. That was as classy as Andy Murray could have been. He was magnanimous and dignified, gracious and balanced, and a genuine sportsman representing himself almost regally. It was an appropriate conclusion to a triumphant season for Andy Murray and the team he had propelled to such a gratifying victory.
As John Barrett summed up so accurately, “The rise from total obscurity to champion status has been as remarkable as it has been unexpected and the person that can take the most credit is the captain, Leon Smith. His appointment at the end of 2010 following that humiliating defeat in Lithuania was a shrewd move by the LTA. Smith had been Andy Murray’s first coach from the age of 12 when Andy’s mother Judy wanted someone to take over from her. Nobody knew Andy better. Furthermore, Andy trusted him. Accordingly, Leon’s first task was to convince Andy that it would be possible to win the Davis Cup if he was prepared to commit to it. Andy, a fiercely patriotic Scot who was proud to be British, needed little persuasion.”
Barrett finished that thought, and then added, “That, in a nutshell, has been the story of Britain’s rise from rags to riches. With Andy as the central figure, Leon Smith was able to assemble the right mix of players, coaches, trainers and support staff to get the job done. It nearly happened in 2014. That year Italy recovered from 1-2 to snatch a 3-2 quarterfinal win on a slow clay court in Naples when Fabio Fognini beat Andy Murray in the decisive fourth rubber.”
This year, of course, the British put all the pieces together and flourished. Andy Murray not only brought the finest tennis he could out of himself, but he also elevated others. As Barrett says, “Andy’s inspiring leadership has produced some remarkable performances from the other players, none more spectacular than James Ward’s two wins in the ties over the United States—against Sam Querrey in 2014 and John Isner in 2015. These wins remind me of what Fred Perry was always saying to our players. ‘You gotta believe. If you don’t believe you’ll lose.’ James most certainly believed. Fred would have been proud of him. Another debt is due to Andy’s brother Jamie, himself a fine doubles player who became a Wimbledon champion before Andy when he won the mixed doubles with Jelena Jankovic in 2007. His two men’s doubles finals this year at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open revealed amazing reflexes at the net and an awareness of the value of the lob—qualities that proved crucial in Ghent. As Bob and Mike Bryan have shown, fraternal understanding is a great advantage in doubles.”
That is extraordinarily well stated. In many ways, it was a supreme team effort that allowed Great Britain to become the champion Davis Cup nation in 2015. But, above all, Murray must be admired tremendously for the role he played. He had no margin for error every time he stepped on the court, in singles and doubles, against tough opposition; he simply could not afford to lose a match or it would have been a crushing blow to his country. Among his memorable moments, Murray accounted for Isner in the opening round win over the U.S., toppled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon of France, dealt with the challenge presented by the Australian Bernie Tomic and then struck down Goffin in Belgium for the most telling win of them all.
When his career is over many years from now and he is reflecting upon his milestones, Andy Murray will surely say that the Davis Cup triumph of 2015 was a singularly gratifying experience.