It’s not often, when you watch an important tennis match, that you feel as if one of the players simply can’t lose. Rafael Nadal at the French Open, Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, Serena Williams in most of her Grand Slam finals: Even in this era of top-down dominance, the list of “mortal locks” is a short one.
For me, it got a little longer during the 2015 Davis Cup final. From the first ball he hit on Friday to the last ball he hit on Sunday—which happened to be a perfect backhand lob—I never felt the slightest doubt that Andy Murray was going to win all three of his matches against the host Belgian team, and lead Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title since 1936.
That may sound hard to believe, especially for British fans inured to Davis Cup defeat. As brilliant as he can be, the mad and often-maddening Murray has never inspired a calm sense of confidence in his supporters. Yet all through 2015, whenever he played for his country, Murray had checked his emotional baggage at the arena door and set about erecting an impenetrable fortress made up of timely serves, potent returns, ridiculous gets, heavy topspin ground strokes, and running crosscourt forehands hit at seemingly impossible angles. On the one hand, Murray made it all look easy; he lost just two sets in eight Davis Cup singles matches in 2015. On the other hand, Murray dug deeper, over a longer period, than he ever has in his career. The fact that he was supposed to beat—had to beat—each of his opponents only added to the pressure.
Murray dug deep again this weekend in Ghent, Belgium, and as expected, his fortress of versatility held firm three more times. When his last, running lob cleared the low ceiling inside the Flanders Expo Arena, and then cleared a helpless David Goffin for a winner, he had completed the first 11-0 season in Davis Cup since John McEnroe went 12-0 in 1981. Murray, not unlike a young Johnny Mac, ranted and raved his way through Ghent, but he won both of his singles matches in straight sets, and the doubles with his brother, Jamie, in four. This time, the emotion that can distract and exhaust him was all channeled in the right, winning direction.
And there was a lot of emotion; even more, Murray said, than the last time he played the hero for Great Britain, at Wimbledon in 2013.
“It’s obviously an amazing feeling,” Murray said. “I imagine it will take a few days before it really sinks in. I probably haven’t been as emotional as that after a match that I’ve won. I’ve been pretty upset having lost matches before. But I’d say that’s probably the most emotional I’ve been after a win.”
Knowing that makes Murray’s sense of self-assurance during this tie more impressive. He’s known as someone who thrives when he has something to prove, and true to form, it was the moments when he was pressed this weekend that inspired his finest tennis. Three points come to mind:
(1) In the doubles on Saturday, the Murray brothers were serving at 4-4 in the first set against Goffin and Steve Darcis. The Brits went down 0-30, the Belgian crowd stood up to cheer, and on the first shot of the next point, Andy was forced to hit a fairly tough forehand volley. Not only did he make it, he kept his hand steady enough to make a drop-volley winner out of it. In most cases, that shot would have been too risky to try at 0-30, but it wasn’t for Murray. The Belgians’ rally was extinguished, and in the next game, the Brits broke for the first set.
(2) On Sunday against Goffin, Murray faced a break point at 2-2 in the first set. He was forced to hit a second serve, his weakest shot. Goffin stepped forward in anticipation of a clubbable ball, but Murray got just enough extra kick on it to throw him off. Goffin’s return floated long, Murray gave his team a fist-pump, and he proceeded to play his best tennis of the day over the next four games. It was clear that, in this match, he was going to meet any challenge, and use it as emotional fuel.
(3) The second set of Murray-Goffin was the best of the weekend, and one of the most hotly contested of the season. It was also the Belgians’ last hope, and they roared to life as Murray stepped up to serve at 3-4. How did he answer that roar? With two aces and a love hold. Three games later, Murray broke by taking a very good Goffin down-the-line backhand and sending back an even better running crosscourt forehand. It surprised Goffin—he thought he was on the offensive, only to find himself hitting a defensive shot—and he put his next forehand into the net.
On tour, it often seems as if Murray deliberately keeps his genius side under wraps. He has a full arsenal of drops and lobs and volleys and angled forehands, but he prefers to play a safer game, and it’s hard to argue with any strategy that takes a player to No. 2 in the world. This weekend, though, when Murray needed him, he let the genius come out to play. Against Goffin, he ended the second set with a hooked forehand winner hit at an extreme angle, on the dead run. And he ended the third set with a topspin lob that had been 79 years in the making.
Was this really a more emotional experience for Murray than the last time he ended a British tennis drought, at Wimbledon? He said it was the unlikelihood of the achievement in Ghent that overwhelmed him.
“It’s incredible that we managed to win this competition,” Murray said. “I didn’t know that would ever be possible.”
He wasn’t the only one. The idea of a Davis Cup win by the Brits this year, or any year, didn’t enter my mind until the very end of their quarterfinal victory over France: “Wait, could the Brits...? Could they... go all the way?” The idea seemed preposterous. The country’s Davis Cup hopelessness was a given, even in the Murray era; he has never had a reliable second singles player alongside him. Five years ago the team was ranked 43rd in the ITF’s rankings, and suffered a loss to Lithuania.
That’s when Leon Smith, the current captain and an early coach of Murray’s, took the reins. It has been a long climb back to respectability since, and Murray wasn’t the only one to make it. This year James Ward came back to beat John Isner in a crucial five-setter in the first round against the United States, and Jamie played two epic doubles matches, losing one to the Americans and winning one against the Australians in the semis.
When the climb was over and Murray had won, Smith was the first to get down on the clay to celebrate with him in Ghent. Then he stood up to praise his No. 1.
“It’s incredible for all of us to watch how he’s managed to win that many rubbers,” Smith said of Murray’s flawless 2015 campaign. “I hold Andy in absolutely the highest esteem. I can’t talk highly enough about him. He’s put his whole body, his whole mind on the line every single time for the team. We’re all grateful and proud of him.”
“Absolutely the highest esteem”: How else could anyone in tennis feel about Andy Murray right now? When the rest of his team arrived on court to hug him, Murray immediately ran the other way. Before the party could begin, he wanted to pay his respects to the losers. In good Davis Cup style, he shared a handshake and a word with his vanquished Belgian opponents.
Watching him, I thought that we may want to make Murray’s 2015 Davis Cup record an honorary 12-0. As a competitor and a sportsman, he couldn’t lose.