British combatants – or at least English ones – have been expelled from Normandy before, in the days when archery and jousting led the sporting agenda. But there can rarely have been a more comprehensive drubbing than the one handed out in Rouen’s Kindarena this weekend.
Great Britain barely managed to land a punch in this Davis Cup quarter-final, which ended ahead of schedule on Saturday when Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot went down to defeat in four sets. It was the first time since the Ukraine match of March 2009 that they had suffered a 3-0 defeat, leaving tomorrow's reverse singles matches as dead rubbers.
It was a netted volley from Murray that finished the tie. Really, though, this doubles contest was little more than an academic exercise in whether Great Britain could extend their interest into a third day. The real damage was done in the opening rubber, when Kyle Edmund needed to fly out of the stalls against Lucas Pouille, but instead came a cropper at the first fence.
The French have a wealth of talent at their disposal: fully 48 members of the world’s top 500, as against Great Britain’s scanty 13. As a result, they could ride out the absence of the so-called “Four Musketeers” – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon – with rather more ease than their opponents could cope with the loss of world No 1 Andy Murray (who is set to test his painful elbow in an exhibition match against Roger Federer – the Match for Africa 3 – in Zurich on Monday).
And then there was the choice of surface. It was ironic that Aljaz Bedene won the semi-final of a clay-court Challenger near Nice on Saturday, as the British No 4 would have been a real threat on this slow court. But Bedene has had all applications to represent Great Britain refused, because of two previous dead-rubber appearances for Slovenia, the country of his birth. As a result, hard-court specialist Dan Evans was forced to attempt a radical reinvention of his normal game against Jeremy Chardy, and the results were far from convincing. With Solihull Moors, his local football club, losing 9-0 to Tranmere, it has not been a good weekend for the man from Hall Green.
Saturday's doubles rubber was played at a frenetic pace, despite the clagginess of the clay, with few points lasting more than four shots. The serving, the returning, the poaching – they were all superbly sharp, as befits a match contested by four elite players.
France might have been missing Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the world’s No 7 doubles specialist, who was forced into a commentary role by a groin injury. But his replacement Julien Benneteau was hardly a slouch. By combining with Nicolas Mahut, Benneteau was recreating a partnership that had ruled the junior world in the late 1990s, while also reaching two US Open semi-finals.
The first set was a big deal, and as tight an affair as you could imagine. It lasted 58 minutes on its own – not far short of the length of some of Roger Federer’s recent matches. Serving at 5-6, Benneteau managed to fend off three set points, and he made this salvage act count when he drove a backhand into Inglot from short range to claim the tie-break by the narrowest of margins: 9-7.
The British pair fought back to take the second set after Inglot had clinched the contest’s first break of serve with a superb lob. It was the first set that Great Britain had picked up in the three live matches. But that would be their one and only scoring shot, as the result was effectively decided in a see-sawing period of breaks and counter-breaks over the next hour or so. Mahut and Benneteau only won three more points that they lost in their 7-6, 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 victory. In tennis, though, some points are more equal than others.
The French have not always looked like the most tight-knit unit in this competition, but this week their team spirit has been terrific. Yannick Noah is a dynamo as the captain, crouching down intently at every changeover while speaking at two-hundred words a minute. A group of injured or non-selected players – Herbert, Simon and Gasquet – have all been cheering from courtside throughout.
“We’ve got used to going a bit deeper into the year,” said the British captain Leon Smith. “But we were playing against a very good team. We’re a darn sight better than we used to be, that’s for sure, but clearly we still lack depth. We want to find a few more players on both the men’s and women’s side who are playing on the main tour, so there’s still work to be done.”