“It’s almost a different sport,” said Dan Evans, after Great Britain were humbled on the clay of the Rouen Kindarena. It is also a very different British team without Andy Murray, who was 500 miles away in Nice testing out his sore elbow.
Since Leon Smith took over the Davis Cup captaincy in 2010, he had never previously seen a complete blow-out on the first day of a tie: six sets played, six sets lost. But Evans and Kyle Edmund were unable to cope on Friday, either with the excellence of the French or the peculiar challenges of this tricksy surface. At 2-0 down, with a difficult doubles rubber to come on Saturday, they had better start praying to St Joan of Arc – another who suffered heavy punishment in this town.
The British team started from an unpromising base, thanks not only to Murray’s absence but also to Evans’s distaste for clay – a surface on which he has yet to claim a victory on the ATP Tour. Despite being ranked three places lower, Edmund was Smith’s best hope to sneak a point yesterday. In theory, French No 1 Lucas Pouille seemed the kind of player who might be vulnerable to Edmund’s heavy artillery off the ground. He is more of a stylist than a power merchant, and his fondness for net-play threw up plenty of opportunities for passing shots.
Edmund fought doggedly, and could have taken either of the first two sets if one or two balls had clipped the line rather than straying just wide. But they did not. On a slightly up-and-down court, which threw up enough bad bounces to leave doubt in your mind, Edmund lacked the killer instinct that could have brought this tie to life.
“I came out of the match and Leon said, ‘You gave it your best effort, it just wasn’t good enough today’,” Edmund admitted after his 7-5, 7-6, 6-3 defeat. “It’s easy to look back and say there were some points where I could have done better, with some better choices and better execution. But when it counted I just didn’t get it done.”
Evans soon found himself inching around the red clay with the wariness of a novice ice-skater. This surface remains alien to him, and by the time he had established any rhythm in his movement or his hitting, Chardy had won the first five games. From there, it just felt like a case of limiting the damage as he went down 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.
Today’s doubles will offer another chance for Great Britain to win a point.
Once again, though, Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot will start as second favourites against Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau. The French pairing might not look as strong on paper as the first-choice combination of Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the reigning Wimbledon champions. But do not be deceived. Mahut and Benneteau played together regularly between 1993 – when they were 11 years old – and 2012, becoming world junior champions and twice reaching the US Open semi-finals.
“There’s always a way back,” said Smith last night. “It would be wrong to say we’ve lost. That’s not the mentality we’ve built up over the years. You’ve got to try and fight for everything and hopefully Jamie and Dom can cause an upset and take it into the final day.”
If not, the 1,000 or so travelling British fans might be better advised to take in the local sights – including the Gothic cathedral that Monet turned into a personal obsession – than return for two dead rubbers tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic won his first match since pulling out of Miami with an elbow injury, beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas in straight sets to kick off Serbia’s home tie against Spain. But Djokovic’s general approach to tennis was questioned by Bogdan Obradovic, the former Serbia Davis Cup captain who used to coach him as a junior.
“In the last year he didn’t practice for weeks and it’s not good,” said Obradovic. “Then he started with funny diets, he meditated more than hitting the ball. He doesn’t have his normal routines anymore. In tennis changing racket changes your game. Imagine if you change your mentality.”