Novak Djokovic ended Great Britain’s hopes of winning another Davis Cup title as he led Serbia to a 2-0 quarter-final victory in Malaga.
Britain’s dramatic success against France in Manchester in September had sent them through to the final eight event for the first time in the revamped format.
But they fell at the first hurdle, with Miomir Kecmanovic defeating Jack Draper 7-6 (2) 7-6 (6) before Djokovic comfortably saw off Cameron Norrie 6-4 6-4 to send a jubilant Serbia through to a semi-final against Italy on Saturday.
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Given the presence of Djokovic, who cemented his position at the top of the sport by winning a seventh ATP Finals title on Sunday, Britain’s hopes depended on Draper winning the first rubber.
The tie did not get under way until 6.10pm, more than two hours later than billed, because of the over-running first match of the day between Italy and the Netherlands.
There were around 5,000 British fans in a near-capacity crowd, giving the event the sort of authentic Davis Cup feel that has so often been missing since the switch from the home-and-away format.
Among those sat in the stands at the Palacio de Deportes Martin Carpena was Dan Evans, who had hoped to build on his brilliant performances in Manchester before a calf injury prematurely ended his season.
But even the British number two would have had his work cut out against an inspired Kecmanovic, who was chosen ahead of the higher-ranked Laslo Djere and fully justified the decision.
Draper had the better form coming in having reached his first ATP Tour final this month and had beaten Kecmanovic – ranked five places higher at 55 – earlier this year, but the Serbian was dominant on serve and edged two tie-breaks.
Draper hung on during the first set, saving two break points at 3-4 and then two set points at 4-5 with some gutsy play only to double fault twice in the tie-break.
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His chance came when he recovered from 2-5 to level at 5-5 in the second tie-break but, despite saving a match point, he could not force a decider.
It was only the 21-year-old’s second Davis Cup rubber and he admitted knowing Djokovic was looming added to the nerves he felt.
“That’s seemingly a must-win match for me,” said Draper. “It’s definitely a tough challenge to go out there knowing that there is a lot more pressure on me to win the match.
“That’s the kind of pressure that, if I want to be a top player, I have to cope with and have to perform under. It’s tough not to get the win today. I gave it all I had mentally. I didn’t do a few things as well as I wanted to, but he played a great match.”
Djokovic had lost only six of his 61 previous matches this season, with just one defeat since the Wimbledon final, while his Davis Cup record is utterly formidable.
It is 12 years since he lost a singles match in the competition, and even that was by retirement, with now 21 straight wins and only four sets dropped.
Norrie had managed only a single set in three previous meetings and has endured a miserable run since the clay-court swing back in the spring, but he was captain Leon Smith’s only option once Andy Murray pulled out with a minor shoulder injury.
He did not put in a bad performance by any means, but was fire-fighting from the moment he was broken at 2-2 in the opening set, throwing everything he had at Djokovic to fight back from 0-40 in his next service game.
The Serbian lost just three points on serve in the first set – and only eight in the match – and blew kisses towards a vocal British fan who had been warned by the umpire after clinching it to love.
Norrie promptly dropped serve to start the second set before again hanging on grimly, this time saving five break points at 1-3, but Djokovic was able to stay in his comfort zone through to the finish line.
While Serbia are a step closer to the trophy, Britain must start again in February in the qualifiers – barring an unlikely wild card through to September’s group stage.