The Davis Cup begins in earnest on Friday, with Great Britain beginning the defence of their crown against Japan, which has the makings of a tussle. Andy Murray and Co. will no doubt be confident following last year’s triumph. Their 3-1 win over Belgium (in their own backyard) ended a 79-year hoodoo which some thought had restored the reputation of British tennis, for a long time seen as an embarrassment. While the victory last year was great to watch, it shouldn’t disguise the fact that a lot of work still needs to be done.
The problem that needs addressing is the over-reliance on Andy Murray. This has not been a new phenomenon. Of the 12 rubbers that the team won last year, eight were singles victories from the world number two. The other four victories were during doubles encounters, which all included Andy and his brother Jamie. In other words, no player outside the Murray family had a stake in Great Britain’s success. The upsurge in fortunes for the team can be directly attributed to the increased involvement of the 2013 Wimbledon Champion. If we contrast last year’s pattern of results with those of previous Davis Cup winners down the years, the difference is stark. Of the 12 rubbers won by 2014 champions Switzerland that year, seven involved Roger Federer in singles and doubles, with the other five involving Stan Wawrinka and the doubles players Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer. In 2013 it was a similar story, with Tomas Berdych contributing to seven victories, while Radek Stepanek, Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol also chipped in. These wins were far more about the team, rather than an expectation that one talented family would come to the rescue.
The health of a country’s tennis is in part measured by its strength in depth at the highest level. If you take the younger Murray out of the equation, the next highest-ranked player in singles in this country is Aljaz Bedene, at World No.52. However, he is ineligible to play in the Davis Cup having competed previously for Slovenia in the competition. With 21-year-old Kyle Edmund out injured for the opener, the pressure falls on world number 157 Dan Evans. He may have shocked Kei Nishikori, Japan’s best player and the current world number six, at the 2013 US Open, but Evans has a far better chance of success in his tie against Taro Daniel, who is still ranked at a respectable number 87. It remains to be seen how much Bedene, Evans and Edmund progress, but one doubts that any will reach the levels of the elite.
Team GB can’t afford to see Andy drop his level. Indeed, the last time he lost a Davis Cup tie, against Italy’s Fabio Fognini, the team were eliminated from the World Group at the quarter-final stage. It is of course likely that he will rise to the occasion as he has done time and time again when he has been called upon, yet there is no reliable back-up should he have an off day. Edmund certainly has immense potential, and could certainly broach the top 50 in the next few years. However, the problem has so often in British tennis been converting promise at junior level (and the fledging years at senior level) into consistent excellence at the top table. To have produced only two truly world-class men’s singles players in the last 20 years, in a country where 400,000 people play once a week, is staggering. Countries like Croatia and Serbia, with far fewer resources, have managed to roll far more elite players off the production line during a similar time period, showing that it is not beyond the authorities in this country to match such success.
Although the Davis Cup victory last year was great, it concealed a broader problem of youth development. Great Britain will always be in contention in every match they play thanks to the involvement of Murray junior, but the lack of competition among the players in this country currently means that when the two-time Grand Slam winner decides to hang up his racket, there could be another long wait before the country witnesses another Davis Cup triumph.
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