It has been a happy time for Leon Smith as the AEGON Great Britain Davis Cup team captain. Four wins out of four ties in charge have seen his side earn their place back in Europe/Africa Zone Group One.
However, that win streak is under threat of coming to a halt next week at the Braehead Arena, on the outskirts of Glasgow, against the Slovak Republic after Andy Murray announced he will miss the tie on medical grounds.
The world No.4’s absence will allow him extra time to recover from his exertions in Australia and spend some time training with Ivan Lendl in Miami before he returns to action at the Dubai ATP 500 event, which begins on February 27.
For Great Britain, though, it is a huge blow and has changed the complexion of the tie. In a role-reversal, the home side are no longer favourites.
Tonight, Smith heads back to the UK from Eilat, where he has been watching and assisting Judy Murray’s Fed Cup team, to finalise his preparations for next week. He is understandably disappointed that he won’t be joined by his former protégé in Glasgow but is more than understanding of his reasons.
Smith said: “I am 100 percent behind Andy’s decision. There is no doubt for Andy, but also for British tennis, that his career is about getting his first grand slam and beyond that. Coupled with the Olympics being on, it is a packed schedule and it is a very important year for him.
“We saw how close he was to toppling Novak Djokovic in Australia and I am with him on this. I think he has got to look after his body and look after his preparations for the rest of the year.”
21-year-old Dan Evans, ranked 296, comes in for Murray, in what will be his first Davis Cup appearance since the loss away to Lithuania in March 2010 - and joins team regulars James Ward, the world No.155, Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins.
Both of the Slovak Republic’s singles picks are ranked ahead of Ward. Lukas Lacko is ranked just within the top 100 at No.97 and Martin Klizan is at No.116 - and they are joined by two accomplished doubles specialists in Filip Polasek and Michal Mertinak.
The rankings show that Britain will face a tough task in trying to get the three victories required to win the tie. Smith acknowledges this but maintains that they will try their best to achieve what would be a win against the odds.
He said: “We have got to now look again where we are at on the men’s side. We have got players who are in a bit of form - Ward, who qualified for the first time at a grand slam in Australia, and Evans, who recently qualified for the Zagreb ATP event, which is a good sign - so we have got to put these guys on the court and it’s up to all of us to try and work hard and win without Andy.
“There is no doubt we are underdogs and we haven’t been that for a while. It is not a bad thing, though. We have got to look at this tie and at some point we have to have our players beating higher-ranked opponents.
“We are not playing against opponents that are ranked in the top 10 or top 20 in the world. It is not unrealistic to think that if we had a really good day at the office, we could actually get through this one.
“But we are going to have to play extremely well and our tactics will have to be spot on. We have done a lot of research on them and have a lot of video footage. It is just a question of trying to get out there and fight as hard as we can, play smart tennis and see where that can take us.”
Win or lose, Britain will play another Davis Cup tie at some point later this year. You sense the aim now for Smith’s team is not to undo all the hard work of last year and retain their position in Group One. Murray’s participation is key in that and Smith is hopeful that he shall have his star player back for next time.
Smith said: “For these top guys, especially someone like Andy who is featuring in the latter stages of just about every event he plays, it is going to be a brutally tiring year but let’s see where this tie goes and I’ll have another conversation with him.
“But he certainly really enjoyed playing the last couple of matches and is definitely open to playing in the future, so fingers crossed he will play the next one.”