On the 7th March 2010, Great Britain started the day 2-1 up against Lithuania in a Davis Cup Europe/Africa group II match. Two days earlier James Ward had beaten Laurynas Grigelis in straight sets before Ricardis Berankis defeated Dan Evans in a tough 5 setter. Then unsurprisingly on the 6th GB’s doubles pairing of Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming beat Grigelis and Dovydas Sakinis. We only needed to win one of the singles matches on that Sunday, which looked to be a fairly straight forward task. The first one was 198th ranked Berankis versus 250th ranked Ward, which was never going to be an easy match for Ward but one which he felt confident about – 3 sets later and the tie was at 2-2. The last singles rubber was between Grigelis, ranked 521st in the world, and Evans, ranked 252nd. This should have been a routine win for Evans, but a mixture of factors (including the home crowd in Lithuania) meant he lost in another 5 set match. Great Britain had just lost to Lithuania and had missed out on the chance to get promoted to group I. This was quite possibly the lowest day in British Tennis history and the immediate aftermath of the tie saw John Lloyd resign from his post as captain of the team.
The slide to this day had started with the retirements of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski which left British Tennis short of real quality players. Now only the once in a generation talent of Andy Murray was left and his thoughts were more on personal ranking and prizes then the Davis Cup, something to be looked at in more detail later. This meant that the responsibility for success was left to youngsters such as Evans, Ward, Chris Eaton, Jamie Baker, Josh Goodall and Alex Bogdanovic – while these players aren’t bad tennis players, back in the period of 2008-2010 they weren’t ready for this competition. John Lloyd was practically doomed from the start.
John Lloyd’s replacement was named on the 12th April 2010 as Leon Smith. Smith had coached Andy Murray aged 11 and had always been a specialist coach rather than a specialist player. For these reasons the appointment always seemed like a sensible one to me, as he could get Murray back into the Davis Cup frame and he knew how to improve the game of tennis players. His first match was against Turkey, lose and we were relegated to group III but those fears were lifted when we won 5-0. In 2011 we pushed on with victories over Tunisia (4-1), Lichtenstein (4-1) and Hungary (5-0 with Murray back) to get promoted from group II back to group I. 2011 was also significant because it saw the development of Fleming into one of the best doubles players around and get a partner in Ross Hutchins. In the 3 Davis Cup ties they have played together, they have yet to lose – it takes a lot of pressure of the Singles players when you have a great Doubles team and that started to show in 2012 when Dan Evans beat both Lukas Lacko and Martin Klizan of Slovakia to propel us towards a World group playoff match. Belgium stood in our way and despite Flemings/Hutchins winning, the vastly more experienced Rochus and Darcis saw off Goodall and Evans respectively before the talented Goffin finished the job. This 4-1 loss to Belgium was a setback but it had still been a major rise from where we were in 2010.
In Europe/Africa Group I there are 2 rounds and if you win both you get to go through to a play-off for the World Group against a losing side from the first round of World Group matches. If you lose the first match of these 2 however then you face a relegation play-off against a country from group II, in 2012 we had to play both of these matches but in 2013 we were dealt with a reward for our performance against Slovakia with a first round bye. The draw for the second round produced good news and bad news. The good news was that we had been drawn at home, eventually played at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, the bad news was that we had been drawn to play the top seeds, Russia. Russia won the Davis Cup in 2006 and as recently as 2009 were seeded as the third best team in the world – while the Russians aren’t as good anymore, they still have 5 players in the top 100 and so this tie was seen as impossible to win without Murray. Andy promptly pulled out of the tie, citing that he wanted to refine his game before the French Open to have a genuine chance of winning there. Team GB were dealt a further blow when Ross Hutchins was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I want to take this opportunity to wish him the best of luck with treatment. We all hope to see him back on the tennis court as soon as possible but more importantly than that we all want his health to be in as good a condition as possible. His replacement was Wimbledon doubles champion Jonny Marray, world number 12 making his debut in the Davis Cup – proving the strength in depth British doubles has.
Leon Smith named his side as Jamie Baker, James Ward, Colin Fleming and Marray but a late change of heart saw Jamie Baker replaced by Dan Evans. On the 5th April 2013, both Evans and Ward took higher ranked opposition in Dmitry Tursunov and Evgeny Donskoy to 5 sets but unfortunately both lost – Ward lost 8-6 in the final set to Donskoy and was in tears afterwards. I mentioned that they were higher ranked opposition but that doesn’t quite do it justice – Tursunov is ranked 67th in the world and Donskoy is ranked 80th. If you compare that to Ward’s 217th ranking and Evan’s 325th you see that they did incredibly well to make the matches so close. On Saturday 6th April, Marray and Fleming kept the tie alive with a simple victory over singles specialists Igor Kunitsyn and Victor Baluda. The tie was alive but a 4-1 victory for Russia was still very much on the cards and GB hadn’t come back from 2-0 down in a Davis Cup tie since a match versus the Germans in 1930. Odds and history were stacked against Ward and Evans.
Two years and a month after British tennis had reached an all time low, British tennis finally showed a true sign of improvement. James Ward took Tursunov the whole distance and this time he prevailed 6-4 in the fifth. The tie was now level at 2-2, but in stark contrast to 2010 this was a positive thing. We were at home and Dan Evans still had nothing to lose because no-one expected him to win. He played without fear instead replacing that with a lot of courage and defied the world rankings with an impressive 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Donskoy. The win was even more incredible when you consider two things: first that Donskoy just a few weeks earlier had taken a set off Andy Murray at Indian Wells on the same surface (albeit that was outdoors and this was indoors) and secondly, in the final set when 4-1 up he had served a game to 15 proving that being close to the biggest win of his career hadn’t phased Evans. It has capped an impressive turnaround for him, who is only 22 and so hopefully will build on the confidence he has no doubt gained from this weekend. Both Ward and Evans have games that could make them top 150-200 ranked players with Ward possibly able to get a bit higher (he has already been as high as 137 before) but both have seemed to lack consistency in the past. I honestly hope that this weekend will give them that and I hope one of them will break the top 100 at some point, although I still see that as unlikely.
The win over Russia is more important than just gaining us a chance to get back into the World Group. I personally don’t think we are good enough for the World Group when you consider that Spain, blessed with 3 players inside the top 10 of the singles rankings, haven’t made the quarter finals this year and could in fact play us in the play-off. Yet, it is the start of something which needs to be capitalised on. We’ve proved we can win against big teams without our star man, it will have given Evans and Ward confidence, it’s put Marray and Hutchins together to great effect (and they want to play with each other for the rest of the season) and it’s justified the LTA’s decision to bring Leon Smith in. That’s the Davis Cup side of things; the other benefit is these sorts of victories leave legacies. When Dan Evans faces a top 100 player in the future, he has victories to draw on. Don’t expect miracles from him – he’s not going to win Wimbledon this year but he may well win a match (providing he gets a wildcard), James Ward may well win two. It sends a message to other British players such as Baker and Oliver Golding that British male tennis doesn’t have to just be about Andy Murray. There are financial benefits as well, the past year has been a stellar year for those connected to British tennis – Murray and Marray both won Slams, Murray added two Olympic Medals and a world number 2 ranking afterwards and on the female side Robson and Watson both broke into the top 50 in the world, with Watson winning a WTA title. Success in sports leads to more funding from the Government, or at least it should do. It feels like we are on the brink of a Golden Age in British tennis, funnily enough brought about by 3 individuals who have avoided using the LTA’s coaching system to refine their game but more money in the sport will allow said coaching scheme to improve and produce players like Spain, Russia and Serbia have done recently.
Leon Smith has been a brilliant addition to the Davis Cup team by the LTA. He has inspired our players to get back to a position similar to where we should be, and with Murray promising to come back for the play-off a World Group place next year is not out of the question. When we dropped out of the World Group in 2008, I didn’t think we would be back for a decade, if not more. To be talking about possibly being back in 2014 is beyond any of our wildest imaginations and a lot of that is down to how well Leon Smith has done. I’m not saying we will win the Davis Cup any time soon but to be playing against the best will allow Andy to play a bigger role and give the best possible experience to our young players, all of this will only improve the quality of tennis players in this country.