By David de Winter – Sports Editor
When I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, watching British tennis players was a lesson in how to be a gallant loser. Don’t get me wrong, I used to love Tiger Tim Henman (Greg Rusedski less so) and his annual run to the Wimbledon semi-finals. It’s just that after so many persistent near-misses I sort of gave up hope of ever seeing a British Wimbledon champion and/or a victorious Davis Cup team.
Indeed the idea of even getting close to winning seemed totally absurd with the might of the USA and Australia at the turn of the millennium, Spain in the mid-2000s and, latterly, the likes of the Czech Republic. Even with Henman and Rusedski firmly ensconced in the world’s top 50 for years, Davis Cup success was a distant dream.
Then, Andy Murray rolled into town. Perhaps the most talented British tennis player since Fred Perry in the 1930s, Murray came along at just the right time as Henman’s and Rusedski’s powers began to wane. But, despite Murray’s presence (or lack thereof – he rarely made himself available for Davis Cup ties), Great Britain slid down the world pecking order until they were playing glamorous ties against such tennis powerhouses as Lithuania and Tunisia.
It is clear that the role of Davis Cup captain, Leon Smith, has been key. Smith took over from John Lloyd in 2010 when GB were at absolute rock bottom, needing a win to avoid relegation into the bottom tier of the Davis Cup hierarchy. Since then he has only lost two ties as captain. He has brought a youthful exuberance and steely dedication to the role since his appointment, illustrated by the strong bond between Britain’s team members.
Speaking of which, this Davis Cup victory has been a real team effort. Yes, Andy Murray has heroically led from the front, especially this year, but the likes of James Ward and Dan Evans have played a significant part, as have doubles players Jamie Murray, Dominic Inglot, Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming. It is a far cry from those dark days when hopes rested on the rather fragile shoulders of Alex Bogdanovic.
Nevertheless, Murray’s contribution cannot be overestimated. He has, at times, single-handedly carried the hopes of a nation and has consistently delivered victory when most needed, often playing gruelling rubbers over consecutive days. His performance against Goffin, winning in straight sets against a home favourite in the manner he did on his least favourite surface, was nothing short of remarkable.
Murray’s emotions upon sealing the Davis Cup, with that fantastic lob over the Belgian world number 16, demonstrates how much winning in a team environment means in an almost exclusively individual sport. As in golf, opportunities to represent ones country are few and far between for professional tennis players so to win this tournament is a real feather not only in Murray’s cap, but also a fantastic achievement for the rest of the squad and for British Tennis as a whole.
Detractors of Britain’s victory will point to the fact that they never played a really top-class opponent. The likes of the USA, France and Australia did not have a single top-10 ranked player in their squads. Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka did not appear for Switzerland, neither did Novak Djokovic for Serbia, nor Richard Gasquet (my favourite player) for France. Still, as the old cliché goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you; Murray and Britain did that emphatically.
Despite all the deserved euphoria around GB’s triumph, Murray took a swipe in his victory speech at the game’s governing body in this country, the Lawn Tennis Association. Notwithstanding the large amounts of funding the LTA receives it is seemingly not doing enough to promote the game and encourage the next generation of players. Young Kyle Edmund, who took David Goffin to five sets in his first Davis Cup tie, has serious potential but beyond that (not counting naturalised Brit Aljaz Bedene, the world number 48, born in Slovenia) there is precious little in the locker. The board should be searching for and nurturing the best talent in the country, not twiddling its thumbs. The Murray brothers and Ward are approaching their 30s and will not be around for ever, and Dan Evans has ability but is frustratingly inconsistent. Hopefully, the fabulous success in Ghent at the weekend can inspire the next generation of British Tennis stars – I won’t be around if it takes another 79 years.