Posted in Tennis

Putting an ‘I’ in ‘team

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To the strains of The Proclaimers and the cheers of the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Great Britain reached the Davis Cup final this weekend with a 3-2 win over Australia. Commentator Andrew Castle was excited, and rightly: it’s an achievement of world-historical magnitude. Not since 1936 have GB won a Davis Cup, and their most recent journey to the final round was as far back as 1978, when wooden racquets and Swedes named Bjorn still ruled the sport.

The Davis Cup is a team competition, but in getting this far, Britain have pushed the word ‘team’ to its logical limits. Last year, the twin talents of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka propelled Switzerland to the title. In 2012 and 2013, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek chipped in for the Czech Republic. In 2011, Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano López stepped up for Spain. This year, GB have Andy Murray. Just Andy Murray. Take out Murray, the world no. 3, and there’s a yawning vacuum: the next-best player, by ranking, is untested Kyle Edmund at 99 (Aljaz Bedene, ranked 55, is ineligible for the Davis Cup, being cup-tied for his earlier career appearances for native Slovenia).

True, James Ward (no. 134), is a Davis Cup warrior whose against-the-odds victories over Sam Querrey, last year, and John Isner, this, turned each tie in GB’s favour. And there’s Dan Evans (300), a skilful, if mercurial, talent whose arty single-handed backhand propelled him to the 3rd round of the 2013 US Open. But in the elite company of the World Group, don’t lay your bets on either winning too many rubbers. The one incontestably great singles player GB have is Murray. Compare us to quarter-final opponents France (who can call upon Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, all ranked 24 or higher), and we’re at least four world-class players light.

So how did GB beat them, and then Australia? For all Murray’s brilliance, he alone can only ever muster two out of the three rubbers needed for victory. He needs a leg-up, and who better to oblige than older brother, Jamie. Jamie Murray, always deadly in doubles, is riding a career-high ranking of 7, having reached the last two Grand Slam doubles finals. Pooling their talents, the Murray brothers are dauntingly strong: Andy is the master returner, Jamie the virtuoso volleyer. Together they give captain Leon Smith, the mastermind of GB’s tennis renaissance, a winning hand: the Murray brothers’ victories over first the French and then the Australian doubles teams were decisive in both ties.

They were also the most entertaining matches in each weekend. The primacy of doubles is one of the more interesting things about Davis Cup. For much of the year, it finds itself sidelined (or should that be tramlined), banished from the big showcourts to make way for the feature act that is singles. So rarely do the top singles players bother with doubles that it may as well be considered a different sport. To many, it is a different sport: all touch, reflex and improvisation, a far cry from the power- and consistency-dominated modern singles game. The mental side is refreshingly different, too. Witness Andy Murray, so often a scowl with a tennis racquet during singles matches, become a focused, proactive can-doer with his brother by his side.

But doubles apart, the credit side of the Davis Cup ledger is looking a little depopulated. That this old competition needs a reboot is more than a minority opinion. This season, Andy Murray was the only marquee name to play the Davis Cup from the start. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal only answered the call last weekend, when their country was threatened with relegation. Representing your flag in the Davis Cup should be a patriotic privilege, but in a tough 11-month season, it can seem a bitter chore. Perhaps there is just too much Davis Cup. It styles itself ‘the World Cup of tennis,’ but would the World Cup itself be as prestigious if contested every single year? Even Sepp Blatter knows the answer to that one.

Flawed as it is, the Davis Cup is clearly a trophy on which Andy Murray has set his heart. In recent years he’s cast covetous eyes first at Nadal, then Djokovic, then Federer as each won glory for their country. He wants to put Britain’s 79-year itch for Davis Cup glory to an end. And so on to the fair shores of Belgium, GB’s opponents in the final. As the home team, they get to choose the surface on which the tie is played. To the surprise of no one, they chose clay, the surface most likely to inconvenience Andy Murray, and if nothing else, wear him out. Murray will, yet again, be up to his eyebrows in work, if he isn’t already tuckered out by playing the World Tour Finals (on hardcourt) the week before. That’s how it goes when one player (or two siblings) shoulder the hopes of the entire team. It may be a match too far. Let’s hope not.

For too long, Britain have struggled for basic Davis Cup respectability, never mind thought about winning it. No more. The irresistible force that is British tennis, after falling into a slumber in 1936, trembles once more on the verge of glory. Expect Andrew Castle to become even more excited.

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