Glasgow held its breath. The air was a mixture of excitement, anticipation and nerves. There were two figures on either side of a net, taking up the positions they had done so many times already this afternoon. One began his serving motion. The other, the British hopeful, had 3 match points. He’d seen five go already, how many more opportunities could he afford to miss?
It’s hard to know what James Ward was thinking at that moment. Five hours earlier he’d stepped onto the court to take on a giant of the game, in both rankings and actual height, he’d lost the first two sets but fought back and was standing on the brink of a real shock. Here he was, 111th in the world, taking on the American number 1, the World Number 20 and 6 ft. 10 in tall John Isner.
Isner served, Ward, like he’d done all game, just got the ball back into play. There was a short rally before Isner put his third shot into the net and Ward threw away his racket, punching the air. He’d just put GB 2-0 up in a tie including the best doubles team of all time. All they had to do was win one more match and they would progress to the next round.
Not only did they progress to the next round, they won the title. As Jeremy Eckstein, freelance journalist, wrote on Bleacher Report: “All hail, James Ward. Without you, this Davis Cup run may not ever have been launched.”
Mr Eckstein’s assertion about James Ward is right, and isn’t limited to this year. To get an idea about why Britain won the Davis Cup, it wouldn’t be fair to focus solely on Andy Murray. Instead, Britain would never have won it without their unsung heroes.
Britain had been steadily declining for a number of years in the Davis Cup. In 2009 they had been relegated to the world’s third tier for only the second time in their history. This was an unacceptable position for British tennis. Not only do the public demand success, Britain could boast a Grand Slam, a top 10 singles player and nine previous Davis Cup triumphs.
Britain had only won eight ties since the start of the new millennium, with the likes of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski unable to even get them close to the title. Indeed, it had been getting worse before their time, the last year they had contested the final was 1978.
They wouldn’t grace that stage again until this year.
The history gives an idea about what a remarkable rise this has been. But to truly appreciate the magnitude of this success, I believe we have to start five years ago, in the European backwater of Lithuania.
John Lloyd, who had played in the ’78 final, was team captain. His side had just lost four consecutive ties. It was about to get worse.
As a result of Andy Murray’s injury, it was Dan Evans and James Ward who boarded the plane to Lithuania. Ward would be making his debut.
Evans and Ward have gone on to do great things for Britain in the Davis Cup, but in 2010 neither had won a tie.
Even with their inexperience, they should have won in Lithuania. Their second singles player was a 19-year-old outside of the world’s top 500, Laurynas Grigelis.
The weekend came down to the final match, Evans against Grigelis. The tie was evenly poised at two matches apiece; the match was finely balanced with two sets each. It was as close as you can get. Usually, experience tells. But this time, with home support and Britain unable to buy a win, Grigelis found some momentum and packed British bags.
Dan Evans had choked. Britain had tasted the oh-so-familiar feeling of failure.
Facing the prospect of further relegation, Britain’s relevance on the world stage had faded.
John Lloyd resigned, declaring: “I have been a player, a captain and now it is time for me to become a fan”; the British public seemed to lose interest and it was impossible to see them as champions in just five years.
Leon Smith had never played tennis professionally but he took up the reigns and there is no doubt he immediately inspired the lacklustre nation. Britain have only lost two ties under him.
“The atmosphere was ok under John Lloyd, but I doubt any Davis Cup team can match the spirit of this side under Smith.” These are the words of BBC’s Piers Newbery, whose job includes in depth reporting on Britain’s Davis Cup team.
When I asked him which tie he thought was crucial to Britain’s success, he said: “There have been several but I would go for Russia in 2013, when Ward and Evans got the job done.”
That Russian side had quality in depth, Britain didn’t. It must have been a bitter pill for Leon Smith to swallow when Andy Murray pulled out, stating: “I play my best when I have time to prepare for each tournament as best as possible.”
Britain couldn’t have got off to a worse start. After two matches, the tie looked dead and buried. Ward and Evans hadn’t played badly but both had lost, Britain were 2-0 down with only three to play.
The last time a British side had won from that was before the war.
The final day of the tie was one of the most remarkable days in British tennis history.
The Ricoh Arena in Coventry has hosted Olympic football matches and concerts. It’s played host to stars such as Oasis, Muse and Bryan Adams and yet, maybe it’s best moment came when two working-class perennial underachievers shocked better opposition and overhauled the barriers of history.
Ward toppled Tursunov over five competitive sets, leaving Evans with the chance to seal a little piece of history.
In a chilly arena, which was by no means full, Dan Evans once again took to the court in a final rubber. Against Lithuania, he’d choked and lost, but there was to be no repeat here.
Less than two hours after he arrived in the arena, Donskoy knocked the ball wide and Evans had won in straight sets. He would reveal afterwards: “As soon as I hit the first ball, the nerves left me.”
Dan Evans and James Ward were starting to leave their mark on this British side.
Mary Pope, chairperson of the British Association of Tennis fans, describes the Sunday of that tie as “extremely important” to Britain’s title this year. She added: “Obviously we were delighted to win as, if not, Andy Murray may not have played again for us.” Without that day, without those matches, Ward and Evans would never have gained the belief or the confidence that they needed.
Leon Smith summed up the day when he told BBC Sport: “I think it’s one of the best days I’ve seen in British tennis.”
One of The Guardian’s tennis writers, Jacob Steinberg, said Murray not playing: “allowed Ward and Evans to play well.” Agreeing, Piers Newbery states: “it certainly helped their Davis Cup play.”
However, it wasn’t Russia that James Ward later described as his “greatest moment playing for GB.” Instead, that moment was where we began, the energy-sapping tie against Isner. It was the win that set in motion the ending of 79 years of failure.
Piers Newbery believes the win was a coming together of good form and hard work: “Ward’s form had been good and Isner is far from unbeatable, but once Isner edged the first two sets it did appear over.”
Without the change of captain, Britain looked like languishing in the second or third tiers for years.
Without the win over Russia, Ward would never have come back from two sets down to beat a superior player.
But with both, Britain became genuine contenders for the title.
Towards the end, Andy Murray carried Britain to the title. But, winning a title is not just about the final victories; it’s also about laying the foundations.
Britain would never have laid those foundations without the likes of James Ward.
How did it become possible? As I touched upon earlier, the atmosphere within the team is much improved since Leon Smith’s reign began. Tim Henman, who has been involved at various stages of this triumph, certainly agrees. He told the Evening Standard: “Smith has created an atmosphere where they are all there for each other. He has made it fun and enjoyable, and that’s important.”
The usual question asked at this stage is can this be repeated? Piers Newbery said: “They can, if Murray wants to play another full season.” Conversely, Jacob Steinberg said: “The format makes victory possible without Murray.”
Mary Pope thinks the key lies with the next generation. “Kyle Edmund is a good prospect but there is no sign of any more younger players coming through so we need to make the most of our current success. The main thing is to get more and more people playing tennis and then hope that they chose tennis rather than other sports to pursue.”
Whether they win it again or not, Britain’s public should enjoy this, their 10th victory and first since 1936. A victory that was sealed by Britain’s superstar but wouldn’t be possible without the graft and occasional magic supplied by James Ward or the leadership provided by Leon Smith.
In just five years, Ward, Smith and Evans have gone from irrelevance to world champions, from no-hopers to heroes.