The Davis Cup final between Great Britain and Belgium threatened to be over, realistically, after one match Friday.
Britain’s Kyle Edmund, making his debut in tennis’ top team competition amid a daunting atmosphere in Ghent, led the much better ranked David Goffin by two sets on a makeshift clay court.
And with Andy Murray being Britain’s other singles player, if Edmund was able to finish off Goffin, the away side realistically would have departed from the opening singles tussles with a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-five match series.
Even if Britain lost the doubles Saturday — Murray and older brother Jamie are, though, the favorites against the scheduled duo of Steve Darcis and Kimmer Coppejans — the Scot is fully expected to get the better of Goffin in Sunday’s first reverse singles. After all, at the Paris Masters in early November, he crushed Goffin 6-1 6-0.
But when the pride of your country is a stake the spirit can do extraordinary things.
That was true of the 16th-ranked Goffin who ensured a more dramatic final by rallying for a 3-6 1-6 6-2 6-1 6-0 victory over the 20-year-old Edmund, the world No. 100 born in South Africa. Belgium, which has never won the Davis Cup, thus led Great Britain, which last won in 1936.
Pockets of the Flanders Expo were bare less than a week after Brussels — about a 40-minute train ride from Ghent and the main gateway to the city for visiting fans — was placed on the highest threat of a terrorist attack. The threat level dropped Thursday.
The majority of the supporters that had made it to the 13,000 capacity arena were left glum thanks to Edmund’s start. He was on the verge of becoming the first man to win a Davis Cup match in a final on his debut, succeeding where five others — including Pete Sampras — had failed.
British captain Leon Smith, in deciding who would back up Murray, had to choose between Edmund and James Ward. The 28-year-old Ward came up big for Britain when he stunned the U.S.’s John Isner in the first round in March and made the third round at Wimbledon in July.
But Ward, like Belgium’s other player Friday, Ruben Bemelmans, could be classified a journeyman. He lost 10 straight matches after Wimbledon and his ranking has plummeted from a career-high 89th to 156th.
Edmund, meanwhile, is an up-and-comer. He lacks any sort of variety but possesses bags of power through his serve, forehand and backhand.
Equally important he has recently shown form on clay, winning a Challenger — the second tier of the professional ladder — on the surface in Buenos Aires this month, a sizable accomplishment for a young player in the infancy of his career.
Thus, despite the outcome Friday, he always appeared to be the better choice.
The first game certainly backed Smith’s decision to go with Edmund. Lasting 12 minutes, he withstood Goffin’s pressure and saved two break points.
Goffin and the crowd sagged, with Edmund subsequently racing to a 5-0 lead. When a set point went astray on a return only fractionally long, Goffin surged and got to 3-5.
Was a comeback on the cards? Nope, after a costly forehand miss from Goffin at 0-15 with Edmund stranded in the 10th game.
The mini-revival halted, Goffin and his backers were very much back in the doldrums when Edmund stormed to the second set.
Through two sets, he tallied a combined 18 winners and four unforced errors, an especially impressive statistic given not only the occasion but Edmund’s aggressive game.
Goffin certainly aided Edmund, however, doing little to throw his foe out of his rhythm, bypassing drop shots or slices — unless he was on the defensive.
Edmund’s scintillating level had to diminish, and it did to give Goffin hope in the third set. Edmund committed 11 unforced errors in the third.
Goffin’s belief rose and the fourth set was when he began to play his finest, showing the form that helped the speedy 24-year-old post a 25-match winning streak last year.
A toilet break taken by Edmund between the fourth and fifth sets did little to change the momentum. Goffin held from 0-30 to begin the fifth and a deflated — mentally and physically — Edmund wilted.
In the fifth set, Edmund claimed a total of 10 points.
“At the end I was very upset emotionally,” he was quoted as saying by the ITF, world tennis’ governing body. “You’re playing for your country, you’re playing for your teammates.
“You feel like you’ve let them down. I’ll look back on it and I’ll say I did my best. But you’re right in the moment, you’re emotionally attached to it. You’re just disappointed you couldn’t do it for your team.”
One wonders how he’ll react to the defeat. In the short term, if the series goes to a deciding fifth rubber, it’s hard to envisage him keeping his spot.
British fans should leave Friday in happier spirits after Murray battles Bemelmans, ranked 108th. Murray is 8-0 in the Davis Cup this year, leading his side to wins over the U.S., France and Australia.