Conventional wisdom would have it that the only way Belgium can topple Great Britain to win the Davis Cup is if their No. 1 player David Goffin plays the starring role and propels his nation to victory in their first final round appearance at the international team competition since way back in 1904. It is understandable why so many people in the know believe that Goffin is the man who will control Belgium’s destiny on the indoor clay at Ghent, Belgium on the weekend of November 27-29. The 24-year-old is stationed at No. 15 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. He has captured all four of his Davis Cup singles contests across 2015. Over the last two years, he has been one of the sport’s markedly improved players.
But while many experts will follow Goffin with particular interest, other insiders will be looking even more closely at the No. 2 singles player on the Belgian squad. He is 31. He has overcome some debilitating injuries. He once beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, and he has frequently made his presence known when representing his country. He recently won the decisive fifth match for Belgium as they struck down Argentina 3-2 in the semifinals at Brussels. His name is Steve Darcis. The view here is that this man may play a pivotal role in the Cup final, just as he did in the penultimate round.
We spoke by phone last week, and Darcis impressed me with his quiet confidence, realistic outlook, and clear understanding of the rare opportunity Belgium will have in just about two months to make history of a high order. They could well have been ousted in the first round by Switzerland back in March, but both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka had made the full commitment for their country last year as they deservedly won the coveted Cup. Neither Federer nor Wawrinka made themselves available to face Belgium this year. Darcis was immensely helpful in leading his team to a 3-2 triumph, winning the second match 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 over Michael Lammer to knot the score at 1-1. With Belgium ahead 2-1, a weakened and ill Darcis fell in five sets against Henri Laaksonen despite leading by two sets to one and going up a break in the fourth.
Goffin picked up the pieces, routing Adrien Bossel to complete Belgium’s triumph. In the quarterfinals against Canada, Belgium was the host nation again, and once more good fortune came their way. Both the formidable Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil were out of the Canadian lineup, and Darcis posted two singles victories in the 5-0 Belgian victory. That lifted them into the semifinals, and it was in that round when Darcis suffered a couple of exasperating defeats before more than redeeming himself in the crunch at the end. He lost a hard fought, four set encounter with the seasoned Leonardo Mayer on opening day, and fell in the doubles alongside Ruben Bemelmans against Mayer and Carlos Berlocq in another tightly contested four set confrontation.
Darcis found himself in a do or die situation when he played the fifth match against the left-hander Federico Delbonis. The countries were locked at 2-2. Darcis had to come through. But he was weary and somewhat debilitated. “It was a lot of pressure to play at 2-2,” he recollects. “You know that you will not have a second chance to play a Davis Cup semifinal any time soon, so it was a great atmosphere and a great moment for us. It was really tough because I was also a little tired after playing for four hours against Mayer in singles and four more hours in the doubles. I had a lot of chances to do better on Friday and Saturday so it was great to finish with a win like I did on Sunday.”
I asked Darcis to explain why and how he prevailed in that contest with Delbonis with so much riding on the outcome. What enabled him more than anything else to gain the victory under such difficult circumstances? Darcis responds, “It was very close. We knew that the fifth rubber when it is 2-2 is not only tennis. It is also part of everything that is in the head. Tactically I was really prepared. I also felt that playing at 2-2 was to my advantage because maybe I was more experienced than Federico. I was dealing with the nerves very well and I thought that helped me a lot to win that match.”
And yet, he was far from certain that he would play that fifth and final match after the events of the previous two days. As Darcis told me, “I really was not sure I was [going to] play that match. I was so tired. I was feeling it in my legs and feeling it mentally after losing on Friday and Saturday. I did not feel so good and I finished with the physio very late the night before, so I didn’t sleep much. But after practice we had a team meeting and we said, ‘Okay, if David wins the fourth match to make it 2-2, what do we do?’ I had the support of my captain who said he wanted me to play. David [Goffin] said he wanted me to play. And my doubles partner said he thought I should play. That meant a lot to me.”
In the end, Darcis moved past his insecurities and went out to win one of the biggest matches of his career, stopping Delbonis 6-4, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3). “My gameplan,” he says, “was to be very solid. I knew I had to mix things up with my backhand, to play a lot of slices and keep the ball low, and then as soon as I can play fast balls to his forehand side because he has big preparation on that side. I had to win as many easy points as I could on my serve. He was serving really good also, but he was putting less pressure on me with his second serve than Mayer did. Because of that, I could stay in the points. I made him work very hard and that was the key. I have a game like [Roberta] Vinci’s with a lot of slice backhands. I knew what I wanted to do.”
At one set all, the match was hanging delicately in the balance. Securing the third set was a big boost for Darcis, but the hard work was not over. “I was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set,” he remembers, “and I had two match points. The first one was really bad, a disaster for me. I pushed my forehand into the net. The second one he played great. Then he held his serve so I had to hold mine at 5-6, which I did. I played a good game and put a lot of first serves in and played two or three good points. In the tie-break, he started with a double fault so I knew he was feeling the pressure. After that, I had two good serves to make it 3-0, and then you feel more relaxed. After that I played a very good tie-break.”
To be sure, that was a hard-earned triumph for Darcis, a vindication of sorts, and a singularly gratifying moment. Darcis had taken Belgium into its first Davis Cup Final in 111 years, and that was no mean feat. He recognizes that the entire Cup season has been something of a joy ride for Belgium. They have played every tie at home. They confronted depleted teams from Switzerland and Canada, and, while Argentina has a strong lineup, that country does not have any great players on their squad. It has been an exhilarating yet highly improbable journey, and Darcis is well aware of that. But he is upbeat about the prospect of taking on the British in the final.
“We know we have a chance to do it,” he says philosophically. “We knew before the semis that we are able to win if we would play our best and now against Great Britain that is also true. We have a team that can return to the World Group, but we don’t have a team to play every year in the quarterfinals or semifinals like some of the bigger countries with big names. We were like underdogs all the time this year. We knew we had a big chance to play the Final and we took it. Now we have an opportunity to win the Davis Cup. They have one really good player, a great player. The rest of the team is very good but it is not like they have two top five players, so that makes a very big difference.”
Darcis believes the choice of indoor clay makes sense for his country. As he points out, “We talked a lot right after the match with Argentina to see which court we would put for the final against Great Britain. Andy Murray played great his year on clay and he knows how to move on it. But we have to think about the doubles and the second singles player for Great Britain. On hard courts, the Murray brothers play great in doubles. They are confident. If you check the record, Jamie Murray has played two finals at the Grand Slam tournaments on hard courts. We feel the clay is a good chance for us. Their players will be less comfortable in doubles on clay, and the doubles will be the key. But you still have the No. 2 singles to think about. They have Evans and they have Ward and maybe Evans will not come to play on the clay even if he is a very good player. We have to win three points. Maybe we need a miracle to beat Andy Murray in singles even one time, but why not? Or we have to take the doubles and in two other singles.”
It will be fascinating to follow. How will Darcis approach such a crucial appointment in his career? What is his outlook about two months before he takes on that monumental assignment? “When you start to play tennis,” he answers, “you turn on the television and watch all of the Grand Slams and Davis Cup. And for players like us in Belgium, we are so proud to play for our country. It is such an honor. You give everything you have to play in the Davis Cup Final and that is why we put our hearts completely into it. You do this not only for yourself but you have all of your friends and your team and your coach and everybody. It is a dream to play Davis Cup and to have a chance to win it.”
Belgian sports fans had grown accustomed for a long while to celebrating large victories by two women who will eventually end up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame—Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Henin collected seven major singles titles, Clijsters garnered four, and both women rose to No. 1 in the world. Belgium captured the Fed Cup in 2001 and reached the final five years later. But the modern men have not celebrated success on anything like that scale. That is why the public is so delighted about Belgium’s presence in the Cup Final.
As Darcis explains, “It means a lot to them. Because they were used to Grand Slam titles with Justine and Kim and the Fed Cup also, but with the men we have had very good players but not top five. So the people in Belgium want to see more and have more. After the semis it was really big in Belgium with the newspapers and television and all the people congratulating us on the social media, in the street, everywhere. So for our team and for the country, this is a really big thing for us to be in the final.”
Over the last several years, Darcis has come to know Goffin well and they have been very supportive of each other. “I have known him for such a long time,” says Darcis. “I was higher ranked at first and he was playing and practicing with me and maybe I helped him a little bit when he was on his way up. But now, of course, he has improved so much and he is becoming such a great player, the best player for the men that we have ever had in Belgium. And now when I play and practice with him, he is the one helping me a lot. He is making me a better player. I know him outside the court and he is not just a great player but a great person. We have a good friendship and sometimes have dinner together when we are in Belgium.”
How surprised has Darcis been by the rapid ascent of Goffin from No. 113 in the world at the end of 2013 to No. 22 upon the conclusion of 2014 and on to his current status at No. 15? He replies, “I could see he would be a very good player. I knew it. But if you would tell me he would be top 15 in the world I would maybe have not believed it. It is such a big step from No 40 to the top 15. It has impressed me that he has improved so fast. I was there last year when he won his first Challenger tournament and he won 32 or 33 matches in a row. At the end of the year when I was playing with him I could feel such a big difference. He was much more solid and faster. The key with him is that he has so much confidence now. He is such a good player that it is unbelievable.”
It is also astonishing in many ways how much progress Darcis has made. Remember this: when he took on Rafael Nadal in the opening round of Wimbledon in 2013, he was ranked No. 135 in the world. He ousted the Spaniard in a stunning upset but had to default his second round match because of an injured right shoulder that was abysmally restrictive. As he recalls, “In the middle of the first set against Rafa, I was feeling a lot of pain for two games but then the pain went away so I could play my match normal and I was able to play great tennis. It was maybe some of the best tennis I have ever played. But ten or fifteen minutes after the match I couldn’t lift my shoulder. So I saw the physio and went to the hospital the next day to get an injection in my shoulder. But still it was too much pain.”
Darcis returned to Belgium, did a scan and an MRI, but nothing was discovered in that process. He had another injection, played a couple of tournaments and competed in Davis Cup against Israel. “I had to play all three days in that Davis Cup tie and after my singles on the last day I had exactly the same pain in my shoulder. Again, I did the scan and MRI and nothing was found, but I knew I had something wrong for sure. The doctor told me we had to to check inside and when he opened me up it was really bad. He told me we needed to do a small surgery straight away, so I did that. The doctor told me he was not sure if I would be able to play again. That was in the first week of October in 2013. For three months I thought I would not play again because there was no improvement at all and it was so painful. During that time I was lying on the sofa but I couldn’t sleep. It was maybe the worst time in my life.”
And yet, Darcis persevered. “Slowly, I improved after that so I started to play a bit but I couldn’t serve hard. I was serving about 120 kilometers an hour, but at least I could play. The surgeon told me I should play tournaments even if I was serving so slow because my shoulder needed to learn how to do things again. I worked with the physio and got better and better, day after day, month after month. And now I still have pain almost every day but, if I do the physio work after every practice and every match, then I can play normal. Okay, maybe I lost ten or 15 kilometers per hour with the serve but that is the only thing I lost. I worked so hard to come back so I think I am much stronger than I was before.”
How did he manage to make such a substantial climb in the rankings when he was dealing with such daunting circumstances and having to make a daily commitment to keeping his shoulder healthy? Darcis says, “It took time but I wanted to play again and I was very motivated. I had a daughter who was born in May of 2013. I knew what I had to do to make the comeback and I had done it before in my career. I was mentally strong and I started playing better and better and I would always fight, fight, fight. Sometimes I was playing really bad and losing to players I could normally beat, but I did not want to have any regrets at the end of my career. By the end of 2014 I was playing great tennis which was unbelievable to me. I started to beat again players in the top 100 and 200, so I could see I was doing okay.”
Now he plays with less pain but Darcis realizes he must be diligent about doing his physio and exercises after he competes or practices. He takes a physio with him on the road to ensure that the shoulder remains strong and durable, and to get treatment when necessary. He has managed to keep matters under control and has been rewarded with one of the most gratifying years of his entire career. The Davis Cup dream could become a reality in the near future, and that is his chief concern at the moment. But he has long range aspirations as well.
As Darcis concludes at the back end of the interview, “Of course my goal now is to win the Davis Cup and we will prepare hard for that and do our best. This will probably be our only chance to win it so we have to give everything we have. After that, it is tough to say. I really want to play a few more years because I love the game and love the competition. Maybe I can be for two to four more years on the tour, but that will depend on injuries and other things. If I got injured again and went to No. 500 in the rankings, mentally I don’t think I would be able to come back again. So I will try to play well and keep going as long as I can. When I retire, I will stay in tennis because that is the only thing I can do, so why not become a coach, help young players or something like that?”