GHENT, Belgium — While Andy Murray’s match against Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans was a little messier than he would have liked — he fell on the clay, he received a point penalty for swearing, and also had to stave off a set point — ultimately all that mattered was that he levelled the Davis Cup final at one rubber apiece.
It should also prove useful to Murray and Britain’s cause that this rubber wasn’t dragged out for any longer, and didn’t get any messier.
There is so much more tennis to come from Murray this weekend in this hangar on the outskirts of Belgium’s third largest city, as he is due to appear in Saturday’s doubles rubber with his brother Jamie, and then to feature in the first of Sunday’s reverse singles against David Goffin.
For all Murray’s adventures — there was the moment in the opening set when he stumbled and landed on his backside and ended up coated in the clay, and then he was a point away from losing the third set — he never lost control of the situation.
The excitable atmosphere was such that the Belgian team was reminded that their supporters were in danger of breaking the ‘partisan crowd rule’ by calling out between first and second serves, which can result in penalties for the players. Murray, meanwhile, was in trouble for his language.
“It was so loud out there that I’m surprised that the umpire could hear what I said,” Murray commented on receiving the point penalty, having earlier being warned by the official (though he suggested he had missed that first admonishment).
In the end, Murray had been on court for under two and a half hours when he completed his 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory, with a win that delighted the 1,000-odd British supporters, a good number of whom had come dressed for the occasion in their kilts, wigs and Union Flag suits.
This is Britain’s first final since 1978, which was back when David Lloyd was a tennis player and not a tycoon, provocateur and general Murray-baiter. If Britain is to win the trophy for the first time since 1936, it’s more than likely that Murray will need to contribute all three points, just as he did in the last two ties against France and Australia.
Though the level of Kyle Edmund’s performance in the opening match of the weekend — when the debutant led Goffin by two sets before losing in five — would suggest that he might be capable of winning a decisive fifth rubber, should this year’s final go the distance.
The thinking behind the Belgians’ choice of surface for this tie was that the clay-court granules would nullify some of Murray’s class. Still, it’s not as if Murray’s game doesn’t adapt to crushed brick, and this year he won his first two clay-court titles on the ATP World Tour as well as coming extremely close to making a first final at Roland Garros when he extended Novak Djokovic to five sets.
The truth is, the Royal Belgian Tennis Federation could have laid a surface of waffles for this tie, and still Murray would have beaten Bemelmans.
It was just a few days ago that Bemelmans, ranked 108 in the world, was playing an inter-club match, and suddenly here he was looking across the net at the world’s second best tennis player, behind only Djokovic in the standings.
Not that Murray had everything his own way, with Bemelmans throwing in the occasional dink or drop-shot that was judged perfectly. There were a few boos for Murray when he took his time towelling himself down after the fall in the opening set that left him covered in dust. Then came the small drama of the third set.
This was Murray’s ninth Davis Cup victory this season — seven have been singles matches, and two have been doubles wins alongside his brother — and so the possibility remains that he could become only the fourth player to win 11 or more rubbers in a year. The others were John McEnroe in 1982, Michael Stich in 1993 and Ivan Ljubicic in 2005, with McEnroe winning 12 rubbers in his most productive year.
Inside the waif-like frame of Goffin — he is the closest that elite tennis has to a size-zero player — beats a big heart, as he demonstrated in making his comeback against Edmund. For the opening two sets, Goffin’s performance had been about as flat as the landscape, and it looked as though Edmund was moving in on what would have been one of the greatest upsets in the history of Davis Cup finals, if not the greatest.
Forehand by fizzing forehand, the 20-year-old from Yorkshire was threatening to become the first man in this competition’s history to win when making his tournament debut in a final.
What happened next was the most extraordinary of turnarounds in this out-of-town hangar, akin to performing a U-turn on the nearby motorway. When trailing by two sets, it was almost as if Goffin, ranked 16 in the world, so some 84 spots above his opponent, suddenly remembered his standing and status, and how he needed to win the match if his country was to have any realistic chance of winning the trophy for the first time.
Never before had Goffin won a match from two sets down. But he did so this time, on the occasion when it really mattered, with a 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 victory, and so, in this re-staging of the 1904 final, it was Belgium who took the opening point. So Edmund went the way of Pete Sampras, Henri Leconte and all the others who had lost when making their singles debut in a Davis Cup final.
“You’re playing for your country, you’re playing for your team-mates, and you feel like you’ve let them down,” said Edmund, who was cramping towards the end. “I’ll look back on it and I’ll say I did my best. But you’re right in the moment, you’re emotionally attached to it. You’re just disappointed you couldn’t do it for the team.”
To add some theatre to the pre-match show, giant white curtains had been hung from the ceiling and all around the court. After a countdown, the curtains then dropped to the clay, to reveal that the players and captains were already on the court, along with a troupe of barefoot dancers on the baseline and a keyboardist outside the tramlines. And yet that surprise was as nothing against what unfolded when the dancers and the musician had left this drop-in court.
Here was a performance from Edmund to disturb the regal air of the VIP section, where King Philippe and Queen Mathilde were seated, as well as to quieten the chants and the air-horns of thousands of Flanders locals. Only the seventh man in history to make his tournament singles debut in the final, Edmund hardly looked unnerved by the occasion, by the noise or by the history that is on the line this weekend.
Under the arc-lights and the low-hanging girders, it was Edmund who was the most composed in the early stages, and it was Edmund who was whaling away with his forehand. After the worst possible start, and when it looked as though he was facing what would have been the worst defeat of his career, Goffin turned it all around.