Team Britain has reached next November’s Davis Cup ‘Final Eight’ shootout in Malaga after winning their last, crucial, Group A match against France in the Manchester AO Arena.
It was bonkers. I don't know what I’ve just sat through for nine hours! Leon Smith
It was a tie both teams had to win to qualify for the knockout stage of the largest and most prestigious tennis competition in the world and France will be rueing the failure to convert one of the four match points they held in the deciding doubles rubber and miss the chance of a trip to Malaga, Spain.
Both Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin were distraught when the chance fell to the host’s Dan Evans and Neal Skupski, who, on their second opportunity, broke Roger-Vaselin by forcing him into a forehand error.
The crowd of over 13,000 – a record for a Davis Cup tie in in the UK – went ecstatic as Skupski fell to his knees releasing his emotions with a loud roar and Evans splayed himself out on the court in delight at having achieved what, at one point, looked like ‘Mission Impossible’!
There was plenty of tension right from the start of the tie as team captain Leon Smith selected Dan Evans and Cameron Norrie for the singles while his French counterpart, Sebastian Grosjean, surprisingly decided to blood the 19-year-old Arthur Fils up against Evans and, for a set-and-a-half, it looked like a remarkable choice as the teenager had the better of the 33-yeear-old.
However, whether nerves or the occasion got to Fils, Evans made full use of his greater experience to turn things around and give Britain the start and psychological lift they needed.
Recovering from a set and a break down, Evans posted a 3-6 6-3 6-4 win but Norrie, playing Ugo Humbert in the second rubber, pushed hard in the second rubber, but was unable to secure the winning point eventually going down 7-6(5) 3-6 7-5.
So, it was left to the doubles to settle the final outcome and the French pairing were quick to establish themselves on court and create doubts in British minds leaving Evan and Skupski struggling to gain a foothold.
But with crowd plying their part, the Brits kept hopes alive as, after only winning one game in the opening set, managed to hold their own in the second and force a tie-break where they levelled the rubber.
It meant the match and the trip to Malaga, was going down to the wire and who could hold their nerve better! Both pairs held their serves but in the 10th game, an Evans double fault handed the French three match points which he successfully fended off.
On the first Evans found a first serve to save it forcing Roger-Vasselin to hit a forehand into the net, and watched another return go just long on the second while on the third, a forehand from the Frenchman went wide.
The British pair saved another match point on Skupski’s serve at 6-5 before converting their second opportunity in the deciding nail-biting tie-break to secure a 1-6 7-6(4) 7-6(6) victory after two hours and 50-minutes of tense play.
“There was no panic,” the 33-year-old Skupski said after being mobbed by his team-mates and supporting staff who all came burst onto the court to show their appreciation of a hard-earned victory.
“We just went to the next point. I knew if we got through that game somehow the momentum was going to swing our way.”
Evans, after featuring in two remarkable comebacks, added: “The singles is the singles and I feel comfortable on that court, but the doubles was chaos.
“I just kept saying to Neal ‘we’ve got a chance, we’ve got a chance’ and we both kept going. We stuck together.
“It’s emotional. You want to be with these guys in the finals. It’s an immensely proud moment for me and the team.”
Smith was a bit more descriptive of the day, declaring: “It was bonkers. I don’t know what I’ve just sat through for nine hours!”
“After 6-1 in the first set I thought he had picked the wrong team,” Evans added. “Thanks to everyone in the crowd it turned into pandemonium.
“There was some embarrassing stuff out there but we are going to Malaga so it doesn’t matter.
“Davis Cup is why I played tennis at the start.
“I remember watching the Birmingham ties, finishing late on a Sunday night. That was my first introduction to professional tennis really.
“That was the be-all and end-all to play Davis Cup for my country – and it still is. I’m not a nervous person but before you play Davis Cup it is a different feeling.”
Britain, who last won the Davis Cup in 2015, finished as Group B winners and will play Serbia or Italy when the draw is made on Tuesday.
Australia progressed as runners-up from Group B, with defending champions Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland and the Netherlands completing the line-up.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the failure of Spain, the hosts and the 32-time champions, USA, failing to make one of the qualifying spots.