This weekend Great Britain took on Russia in the Davis Cup in Coventry. The result was a surprise victory and one that meant GB returned to the brink of being in the World Group (also led to me writing a blog about the importance of it). However, it was also another tie without GB’s top player Andy Murray. There is a lot of debate about whether or not Murray should play these kinds of matches and so I’ve enlisted the help of a fellow writer, forestjosh, on our We Only Sing When We’re Winning blog to look at the arguments.
Argument against Murray missing Davis Cup ties (forestjosh):
The obvious line of argument to take when arguing this case is that representing your country should always be perceived as a sacrosanct honour. But, as I am one of the least patriotic people around, I will avoid this demagogic reasoning. Instead, my claim is that Murray’s excuses for not playing in the Davis Cup are dishonest, and that his true motivations for doing so expose a side of him that, as his fan, I would prefer not to see.
The Davis Cup is scarcely a major commitment. Two singles matches (and possibly another doubles match) spread over 3 days, 2 or 3 times a year. Considering that the elite tennis player is capable of, in Masters’ tournaments playing 7 matches in little more than a week, and in Grand Slams frequently playing 4/5 hour marathons at the highest of intensity, the Davis Cup seems a stroll in the park by comparison. Yet Murray continues to repeat that he cannot play Davis Cup due to fatigue, which appears spurious. All the other leading players play the Davis Cup far more frequently than Murray, who has not appeared in the competition since 2011. What is so uniquely grueling about his schedule? As I’m not his trainer, I may be completely wrong about this, but my suspicion is that the fitness issues are a façade.
Instead, Murray’s reluctance to play Davis Cup can be largely attributed to the lack of prestige involved. In September, the British team face a play-off to return to the World Group. Suddenly, Murray’s interest is piqued, and he now claims to want to play in that tie. This rings hollow, as he hasn’t been remotely interested in being a team-mate of James Ward, Dan Evans et al. during the lean times of the past two years. These guys have battled heroically for their success this year against quality opposition, and deserve far better than the disdain Murray has shown them. If the maxim ‘no man is bigger than the team’ has any more merit than any other empty slogan, Murray must commit fully to the team, rather than cherry picking the matches where he can enhance his own status.
There is a financial element in play here as well, as the appearance fees for the Davis Cup are negligible. It appears that Murray will not countenance violating his rest period when remuneration is not on offer, but when it is, a different story emerges. Murray has recently signed a lucrative deal with Globosport to play exhibition matches over a 3-week period during the off-season. In other words, this multimillionaire is foregoing his best chance of a prolonged rest period in order to earn even more money, while claiming he cannot play Davis Cup due to a ‘crazy schedule.’ In his lack of commitment to the Davis Cup, Murray is coming across as a mercenary with little regard for his lower-ranked teammates. As a longstanding admirer of Murray’s, it is illuminating to catch a glimpse of a totally different, and somewhat unpalatable, aspect of his character; all thanks to the Davis Cup!
The truth is that Murray’s attitude to the Davis Cup is primarily hurting himself. This is the archetypal case of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing. John McEnroe saw his Davis Cup triumphs as some of the proudest moments of his career, given that his success was as part of a team. Ilie Nastase even claims that he would have given up both his Grand Slam titles to overturn the pain he felt losing a Davis Cup final. As a Romanian, Nastase was inspired by the chance to leave a legacy and achieve something none of his compatriots had previously managed. Admittedly, even with Murray, Britain aren’t going to win the Davis Cup. But there is a chance we could become a fixture in the World Group. Murray has only ever lost 1 singles match in the Davis Cup. (admittedly he hasn’t played as many as he should.) Jonny Marray and Colin Fleming are one of the better doubles pairings around. If Murray were to change his attitudes, we could revive British interest in the Davis Cup and, building on our recent heroics, become seriously competitive again. Maybe a successful Davis Cup team could even stimulate greater interest in the sport and lift British tennis out of the doldrums. Right now, Murray is our only player in the top 200 male singles’ rankings; a national embarrassment. Wouldn’t it be great were Murray to take a step towards remedying this, rather than only thinking about himself?
Argument for Murray missing Davis Cup ties (gazzaefc):
In 2012, only Roger Federer from the elite group known as the Big 4 played any Davis Cup matches. Admittedly, Nadal was injured for the semi final and final of the competition but Djokovic wasn’t for the first round or quarter final – he chose not to play. In 2011, Djokovic only played one singles match (he retired hurt) as well as a doubles match (which he lost) and neither Roger Federer nor Rafa Nadal played in the entire 2010 competition. My point is that none of the big 4 have dedicated themselves totally year on year to play this competition. Murray has played fewer ties than any of them over the years but I will delve into those reasons later on. The reason that no-one ever focuses on the playing record of the other 3 could be because their countries are blessed with almost unlimited talent. If Novak doesn’t play for Serbia than Tipsarevic or Troicki will play, Spain can use the likes of Ferrer, Almagro, Grannollers, Verdasco and co (plus in the past they’ve had Ferrero, Robredo etc) and Switzerland have a solid top-20 player in Wawrinka. So Spain, Serbia and Switzerland miss their star players but they can usually still win most ties, Great Britain don’t have that luxury. They all miss Davis Cup matches, Murray’s absences get noticed more because of the lack of depth in British tennis.
The Davis Cup doesn’t involve many matches in a year – usually 3. Of those, Andy would only play 2 singles matches per tie, so why doesn’t he play? Part of the reason could be the scheduling of the tournament. The first tie used to be held around March which clashed with the start of the Masters tournaments. It has now been moved to early February which suits players better, but GB got a bye in that tie this year. The second tie, as it was this year, is in April. This is right before the clay court season and so most players are preparing for that. Murray said that he sat out this tie against Russia because he believes he has a genuine chance of winning the French Open. Playing two hard court matches in Coventry while changing your game to play clay would be less than ideal, so this reason makes sense to me. The third tie is at the worst possible time for the top players – it is the weekend after the US Open. The US Open is the last slam and the centre court at Flushing Meadows doesn’t have a roof meaning that any adverse weather (and there usually is in New York) pushes the Men’s final back to Monday. If Murray got to another final this year and it was a gruelling 5-setter, as last year, after a tough 2-week tournament – the last thing anyone would want is an important team competition, on a different continent just 4 days later. If the Davis Cup wants the top players to play, then it should look at its schedule.
Another point based on the scheduling is that playing the Davis Cup could harm Murray’s chances in the slams. I mentioned that in 2010 both Federer and Nadal didn’t play the Davis Cup – that year they shared the slams between them. In 2011, Djokovic played one Davis Cup singles match and in 2011 he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open as well as becoming world number 1 and having an incredible winning streak at the start of the year. I would rather Murray wins slams and reach number 1 than play Russia in Coventry.
Between 2008 and 2010, Great Britain dropped from the World Group to the third tier of the Davis Cup. They were playing players ranked outside the top 200 in the world, sometimes even in the 500’s. Playing at this level teaches Andy nothing whatsoever; you can’t even say it is match practice because it is essentially a walkover. Instead, he did the right thing by letting Evans, Ward etc play them – allowing them to gain skills from these matches. If Murray had played in all of these ties we would have won them all but we would have gained nothing. If Murray had played in them, we would have reached the World Group in 2012 but if then Murray had picked up an injury and couldn’t play in the first World Group tie, we would have been smashed 5-0/4-1. Now, Evans and Ward have experience of facing big players in this tournament and can draw on that. We will still probably lose a match like that but it might be closer (for example not in straight sets). The experience they have gained will be invaluable and it has improved them as players – something Murray wanted to happen.
Murray will most likely come in to the side now we are on the brink of the World Group. His time out of the side hasn’t got good press but he’s done it for the right reasons, giving youngsters experience and refining his game so he could win a slam (which worked). The big players have all missed Davis Cup ties recently, just Murray gets more press because he’s British and we have less depth in quality of our male tennis players.