Belgium could fast become Australia’s nemesis. In 2007, the small European nation instigated the Aussies tumble out of the World Group by beating them 3-2 in the first round in Liege. And now this weekend, in Australia’s biggest chance in the last three years to return to the elite, they have done it again. And again, in the decisive fifth rubber.
Belgium’s Olivier Rochus and Steve Darcis were responsible for securing the 3-2 win in Cairns on Monday, after heavy rain forced the tie into an extra day. With Australia leading 2-1 in the tie, Rochus defeated Peter Luczak 76(8) 64 67(0) 76(2) in the first of the reverse singles, before Darcis sealed Belgium’s 2011 World Group place by defeating Carsten Ball 76(4) 63 64.
Rochus draws Belgium level
It could have been a different story for the Aussies had Lleyton Hewitt been able to play his reverse singles match against Rochus, but the team’s stalwart had been forced out of the tie on Saturday night due to a right hand injury.
That paved the way for Belgium to claw their way back into the tie, with Rochus then taking on a lower-ranked opponent in the meeting of the No. 1s. The Belgian had played Luczak twice previously and lost, including a five-setter at the 2006 Australian Open, but it didn’t seem to bother the world No. 79 and he retained the sparkle that he’d shown during Friday’s defeat of Carsten Ball.
It was a hard-fought match which was decided with three of the four sets going to a tiebreak. Finding himself 3-1 down in the first set breaker, Rochus came up with two breaks of Luczak’s serve, including one with a wonderful backhand volley at 5-5, and the change in fortune took him to a two-set lead.
If Luczak was nervous, he wasn’t showing it. The square-shouldered Aussie played a poised and mature match, but he just couldn’t find a way to penetrate the persistently solid defensive game of his opponent, or come up with the killer blows.
The pair were neck-and-neck through the third set all the way to another tiebreak. Hewitt, with a natural captaincy role, would come to Luczak’s service ends for some one-on-one support which seemed to lift the 31-year-old’s game.
He tried to mix up his shots, sometimes unsuccessfully, and came to the net more, and whether it was that that disturbed a seemingly fatigued Rochus or not, Luczak was able to take the tiebreak to love.
The crux of the match came in the fifth game of the fourth set, with Luczak forcing a break point opportunity at 2-2 40-15. Rochus saved the first point with another teasing backhand volley and then a second when a backhand return from Luczak was called wide. Already on their feet and congratulating Luczak on finally finding a way out, the Aussies were vocally rattled when the call was confirmed out by umpire Christophe Damaske.
That was the turning point of the match. With the grey clouds drawing in, Rochus hurriedly tried to close out the match by breaking in the 12th game but another tiebreaker was inevitable. The Belgian broke twice to chants of “Olli, Olli, Olli!” from his camp and the match was sealed 7-2 in the second day and after 4 hours 23 minutes on court.
“I was really happy with the way I served today,” said Rochus. “Normally I never make one ace and today I made a few. I tried to get in a lot of first serves and be aggressive as soon as I can. When Peter is taking his big forehand he’s putting it everywhere with a lot of spin.”
Darcis seals World Group berth for visitors
For Darcis, it was a case of more experience playing – and beating – bigger players than Ball. The Australian No. 2 was mentally rattled throughout the match and was unable to get the better of Darcis’s fierce forehand, which was winning most of the points throughout the encounter.
Ball appeared lacklustre from the outside, and especially so after losing set points at 6-5 40-30 in the first set. It was a topsy-turvy affair in the tiebreak, but Darcis held on to secure the all-important break at 5-4.
The Belgian needed just one break only in each of the second set and the third set to close out victory, and collapsed on his back after winning Belgium a place back in the World Group on his second match point. The team bundled onto the court and waved their flags vigorously at the handful of Belgian fans who had come to see their nation beat the home favourites.
“We have to be proud to beat Australia in Australia,” said Darcis. “We never expected this, we wanted to do it for sure. I’m really happy about what we did because the team did a good job, it wasn’t only me.”
Darcis was quick to deny that had Hewitt been able to play in the reverse singles, it would have been an easier affair for the Aussies. “It was lucky for us but with Olli you never know. Lleyton was not in the best shape on Friday, Olli played really well on Friday, so if Lleyton had played it would have been a very interesting match.”
Speaking for Ball after the match, Aussie captain John Fitzgerald said: “I think this guy can be a really good player. These are tough situations that he hasn’t faced a lot yet and you learn a lot about yourself in conditions like this. He’s feeling pretty down at the moment but there’s a lot of tough days in this game.”
“In both matches we lost a first set tiebreaker that may have changed the course a little bit. Sometimes it’s a game of inches, you know, and unfortunately it wasn’t our day.”
The question now remains whether one year is long enough for Australia to come back, and get back, into the World Group. The last time the Australians had lost a tie when leading 2-1 into the final day was all the way back in 1998 so this is a bitter pill to swallow.
“We’re disappointed. We tried hard, we brought our strongest team here and we gave it our best shot,” said the skipper. “Davis Cup has been 21 years of my life. I love it. It’s cruel sometimes but it’s a great challenge and it builds character.”