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Great Britain out of Davis Cup as Nicolas Mahut guides France to win

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/04/2017 Kevin Mitchell in Rouen
Julien Benneteau, left, and Nicolas Mahut celebrate winning the second set on their way to France’s Davis Cup victory over Great Britain in the quarter-final. © EPA Julien Benneteau, left, and Nicolas Mahut celebrate winning the second set on their way to France’s Davis Cup victory over Great Britain in the quarter-final.

Only twice in 248 Davis Cup ties stretched over 117 years have Great Britain recovered to win after losing both opening singles matches, and, although Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot gave history a nudge in the doubles of the quarter-final against France on Saturday, this ancient city will not be remembered as the scene of a third great comeback.

Stronger in the memory, sadly, will be last time Great Britain lost a tie 3-0, in 2008 to Argentina. The common denominator was the absence of Andy Murray, injured on both occasions. Even so, this setback, not altogether unexpected on clay against a team who have grown up on the surface, should not cloud what has been a wonderful revival since Leon Smith took over as captain seven years ago.

Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund, losers on day one, will go through the motions of playing the reverse singles on Sunday, as commercial considerations and the game’s laws require, but the air was released from the 5,000-seater Kindarena when Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau held off the spirited but flawed challenge of Jamie Murray and Inglot to win 7-6 (7), 5-7, 7-5, 7-5.

Related: Davis Cup: GB’s Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans beaten as France take control

It was a tight match of high drama, thrilling skill and bags of commitment extended over three hours and 20 minutes in front of a passionate gathering in a small noisy hall, a classic Davis Cup occasion, and one which players and fans are desperate to preserve.

Despite the erroneous impression given by fliers handed out to fans before the second day’s play, the International Tennis Federation have indicated they will not cut the mid-tie doubles matches from five to three sets, but they are likely to do so with the singles. That would make it more amenable for the star players to take part, as well as enhancing the brand appeal of sport’s most venerated annual competition. Great Britain have played in every edition since its inauguration in 1900 and won it 10 times; France joined in 1904 and have been champions nine times.

Mahut and Benneteau are grand ambassadors of their country’s emotional and historic attachment to the Davis Cup, and can trace their personal playing association back to 1999, when they won the boys’ title together at the US Open.

Three years earlier, the skinny Murray brothers from Dunblane played their first international tournament, in Rouen – sponsored by the current French captain, Yannick Noah, as it happens – Andy losing a tough semi-final to Gaël Monfils, who lost a one-sided final to … Jamie.

Those were the days when the elder Murray brother, aged 10, was considered the better prospect but it was Andy whose ambitions would lift him to the heights in singles, while Jamie developed his skills in doubles. Last November, they were ranked No1 in the world in singles and doubles, respectively, an unmatched sibling achievement, unlikely to be repeated.

Jamie has risen to the summit of his discipline with the Brazilian Bruno Soares and has served Great Britain with distinction alongside his brother and Inglot.

There had been not a hint of a deuce point for either combination in early duelling on Saturday until Mahut, whose serve carries more wallop than anyone in the tie, had to keep France in the set at 5-6. He did so with the unwitting assistance of Inglot, who was called for a foul shot when the umpire judged his racket had crossed the net in hitting an illegal winner.

Benneteau’s serve wobbled badly but he held to force the tie-break, where Great Britain went 4-1 up before losing their composure – much as Kyle Edmund had done in a similar situation against Lucas Pouille on the opening day. When Inglot got tight on a volley the first set belonged to France in just under an hour.

Benneteau’s serve cracked at an identical point in the second, and this time Inglot lobbed him for the break. Murray held serve for a set apiece and the match and the tie came to life again after an hour and 40 minutes.

The British were cruising in the third until Inglot took the ball off Murray’s racket at the net and botched a routine smash that handed a break back, although he repaired the damage with a love service game. Murray saved two set points but double-faulted on a third, and France were a set away from their fifth semi-final in eight years.

The standard of the exchanges remained ridiculously high all the way to the end as France gradually got the upper hand in the fourth set. Mahut, who has a heart as big as the local cathedral, left us with an abiding memory: hurdling a court boundary marker to make an impossible return of an acutely angled smash in the 10th game.

Mahut grabbed championship point with a screaming drive in the 12th game. Murray saved, only to be lobbed by the same player for a second shot at glory, and Murray’s final touch of a compelling fight fell with wicked unkindness on the wrong side of the net.

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