Leon Smith hailed a “very good day” for Great Britain after wins for debutant Jack Draper and Dan Evans in Manchester secured victory over Australia.
Draper’s run to the fourth round of the US Open earned him not just a second Great Britain call-up but a first appearance, with Smith picking him ahead of his top-ranked player Cameron Norrie and former world number one Andy Murray for the opening tie of the group stage.
The 21-year-old fully justified his captain’s faith, thrilling a 9,000-strong crowd at the AO Arena by breaking Kokkinakis when he served for the match then coming from 4-2 down in the deciding tie-break to win 6-7 (6) 6-3 7-6 (4) after two hours and 52 minutes.
Evans then took to the court against world number 12 Alex De Minaur, the highest-ranked player in the four-team group.
Evans has struggled for long periods this season but found his form on the North American hard courts with a title in Washington and a strong performance against Carlos Alcaraz at the US Open.
And he extended his tour-level winning record against De Minaur to 3-0 with a 6-1 2-6 6-4 victory, staying strong after the Australian fought back from 4-1 in the decider.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) September 13, 2023
That gave Britain an unassailable lead, with a top-two spot in the group needed to secure progress to the quarter-finals and matches against Switzerland and France still to come this week.
“It’s a really good day for us,” said Smith. “Extremely difficult Aussie team but we’re difficult too. Jack showed again what he’s capable of, both in quality but also the heart and competitiveness he’s got. To steal it at the end when Kokkinakis served for it shows a lot of character. It’s a really good win for him.
“I said to Dan I think it’s one of the best matches I’ve seen him play, I thought he was absolutely brilliant against one of the in-form players on the tour. I just think Dan was amazing but it doesn’t surprise me.”
Australia avoided a clean sweep, with former Wimbledon champions Matt Ebden and Max Purcell defeating Evans and Neal Skupski 7-6 (5) 6-4 in the doubles rubber to make the final score 2-1.
— LTA (@the_LTA) September 13, 2023
For most of his long tenure, Smith’s team, based around Murray, virtually picked itself. Greater options have left him with more difficult decisions and he was criticised for his selection at the same stage last year, when Britain made an early exit.
There will have been great satisfaction for the Scot, therefore, in the performance of Draper, who has been kept off court for much of the season by a string of frustrating injuries but carried the confidence of his run in New York into this clash against another 6ft 4in heavyweight in Kokkinakis.
It was a match of a few crucial moments, with Draper missing a set point at 4-5 in the opening set and then unable to take advantage of momentum at the start of the decider. He looked in big trouble when he dropped serve at 4-4 before staging a rousing comeback.
Of his selection, Draper said: “Leon told me a couple of days ago. He said he wanted me to be out there and that he believed in me.
“I knew I’d played some tough matches at the US Open and I felt really good about my tennis. That helped the nerves a lot. I haven’t played too many great matches this season but I think that was one of them.
Evans admitted to nerves, too, but was proud of his performance, saying: “It means a lot. I played good tennis, I executed what we spoke about and I did it to pretty much as good as I’ve got. It was still a battle, no part of the match was easy, and that was for me the impressive thing that I pulled through.”
Australia, who made the final of the competition last year, must bounce back quickly for a must-win clash against France on Thursday, when the crowd is likely to be a fraction of what it was for this tie.
Captain and former world number one Lleyton Hewitt is a long-standing critic of the move away from the traditional home-and-away format, and he said: “We’ve just taken the great things away from what made this competition so special. It doesn’t feel the same.”