Davis Cup: Norrie and Evans lead Great Britain past France in empty arena

The abject silence of sporting contests held behind closed doors during Austria’s return to lockdown may not be the ideal atmosphere for any Davis Cup tie, but in their first appearance at the 2021 Davis Cup Finals, Great Britain made their own atmosphere and coolly handled their business. As their singles superiority on paper translated to reality, they secured an essential 2-1 win over France in Innsbruck to clinch their first victory of Group F.

In the opening rubber between the two second-ranked players, Dan Evans overcame some tough resistance from Adrian Mannarino, the world No 71, to win 7-5, 6-4. Cameron Norrie, the British No 1, followed shortly after, securing the win by saving two set points in a breathless, extended tiebreak before edging past Arthur Rinderknech 6-2, 7-6 (8). In the doubles, Joe Salisbury and Neal Skupski lost 6-1, 6-4 to Nicolas Mahut and Rinderknech.

While France have historically boasted one of the deepest Davis Cup teams, reaching back-to-back Davis Cup finals in the previous format as recently as in 2017 and 2018, they arrived in Austria with a depleted group headed by Rinderknech, the fast-improving world No 58 and French No 4.

Although Mannarino has endured a tough season, he was a nuisance to Evans early on with his spotless hand-eye coordination and sweet, compact backhand. However, Evans struck his more potent forehand well and his backhand slice robbed Mannarino of the pace he loves to feed off.

Despite ample pressure from the Frenchman, Evans sealed the opening set at his second attempt and then he took an essential break at 4-4 in the second set before closing out the win without issue.

“It’s not easy to come out playing first,” Evans said. “I’ve thought about the match all week and it’s difficult to come out and get your game on the court and try to stay calm. I was very nervous beforehand. It was great to play for my country, come out and get a point on the board. There’s only a few better No 1s in the world right now than the guy [Norrie] coming out here so I wanted to set it up for him out there.”

After spending most of his career far out of the spotlight, this tournament marks an interesting step for Norrie as he adjusts to his new status within the sport. Norrie was not selected for the 2019 Davis Cup Finals squad despite being a top 100 player and he has not competed in the event since 2018. Now, as underlined by Evans, he is ranked No 12 and the leading singles player of the team. His first assignment was the tall, powerful Rinderknech who has risen 120 ranking spots this year. Norrie swiftly established himself in his typical manner, making ample returns, eking out errors from his opponent with his consistency and depth while exposing Rinderknech’s movement by dictating with his forehand when the opportunity presented.

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But the Frenchman grew into the match and as he began to hold with authority, he reached the tiebreak and established a 4-1 lead. After fighting back from 1-4, Norrie spectacularly recovered from bleak positions to save both of Rinderknech’s set points. At 6-7 he was completely vulnerable at the net, but he anticipated Rinderknech’s cross-court passing shot correctly and punched his forehand volley into the open court. On Rinderknech’s serve at 7-8, he pulled off a sweet, angled backhand passing shot winner from deep behind the baseline. Soon afterwards he landed his first Davis Cup win in three years.

Afterwards, Norrie talked about the high morale within the team which translated to the noise they generated for each other on the court in lieu of any spectators: “We’ve been playing a little bit of cornhole, some darts,” said Norrie. “We’ve been watching the other matches together, going to dinner. Some good chat. It’s just nice to be part of the team, especially since we go play all year long, we’re with our own smaller teams. It’s nice to come together at the end of the year and share this moment.”

Great Britain will face the Czech Republic morning. With three nations in each group, Britain would win their Group C and confirm their place in the quarter-final with another win.

Read More: Davis Cup: Norrie and Evans lead Great Britain past France in empty arena

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