Who doesn’t love an underdog? British tennis fans sure do. And boy, we’ve got plenty of underdogs. This weekend, a little under the radar perhaps with the Grand National dominating the headlines, a couple of low-ranking tennis players achieved something marvellous on a temporary tennis court just off Junction 3 of the M6, at the glorified service station that hosts the Ricoh Arena.
Flashback to Friday night. Those of you who missed Blueswater Bop may have been watching Britain’s latest Davis Cup fixture. They were taking on Russia in a pre-play-off play-off. A win, which seemed unlikely with Andy Murray preparing for the claycourt season elsewhere, would give them the opportunity to make it into the World Group play-offs, leaving them one tie away from returning
to the Premier League of tennis, something they have not achieved since 2008.
It looked to be a familiar British underdog story on Friday night. The capacity crowd certainly got their money’s worth as Daniel Evans and James Ward, ranked 324 and 217 in the world respectively, and neither of whom has ever made the top 100, were beaten in 5 sets by Russian players both in the top 80 – Evans’ conqueror Dmitry Tursunov has been in the top 20. The word “plucky” dominated almost every news report, and at 2-0 with 3 to play, the tie was written off.
On Saturday, reigning Wimbledon doubles champion Jonathan “The Other” Murray joined Colin Fleming to win the doubles match in straight sets to keep the tie alive. As Auroras Encore roared to an unlikely victory, maybe Evans and Ward took comfort from seeing such an outsider win on the biggest stage. Coventry isn’t such a big stage as Becher’s Brook, but 66-1 would have been about the price a bookie would have given you for both Brits players to win on Sunday.
Even after Ward had recovered from two sets to one down to level the tie, no-one could quite believe that Daniel Evans, whose greatest achievement to date was taking a set off Florien Mayer in the first round of Wimbledon two years ago, could bridge the gap of 245 ranking places to complete the ultimate comeback, and far less do so in straight sets. Quotes from the team camp however, seemed to indicate that it was never in doubt, and that they never lacked that which all sportsmen require: unshakable, constant self-belief.
In life, hope can keep us going, but false hope can also destroy a man. However, this was the best kind of hope, the flame of self-belief that got captain Leon Smith, and Evans, and Ward out of bed on Sunday morning, and that is what separates the winners from the losers. They never gave up, and never believed that they couldn’t win.
The doubles team from Saturday dedicated their victory to Fleming’s regular partner, Ross Hutchins, a former Davis Cup player who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, in January. He wasn’t in the crowd, having undergone another dose of chemotherapy the previous Thursday. He will have to hold onto hope and self-belief through a test far tougher than any late-night 5-setter. We all wish him the very best, and I for one believe that watching Sunday’s miracle comeback might just have fanned his flame of belief, at least a little.