Thursday, 2 February 2012


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.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


For Judy Murray, Israel holds happy memories.

This was the place where, in 2005, she witnessed her youngest son, a 17-year-old Andy Murray, show an early sign of his future promise when he teamed up with David Sherwood to achieve a famous Davis Cup doubles win for Great Britain in Tel Aviv against the established Israeli pairing of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram.

“What I remember specifically about that is how noisy the Israeli crowd were, which is normal in Davis Cup, and apparently they are the same in Fed Cup,” says Judy, who has returned to the country this week to do more than just watch a match of tennis.

As the new AEGON GB Fed Cup team captain, Judy has a chance to show this week that there is more to her than just being the mother of Andy.  Most of us knew that anyway (if you are a Twitter follower of hers, you will know what I am talking about), but try telling that to those who have solely formed an opinion of a woman they only ever see camera shots of, showing her cheering and fist-pumping as her sons compete on-court.

This is a job which she feels perfectly suited to.  For years, she accompanied British juniors to tournaments in all corners of the country.  And as she chats at the team hotel in stunning surroundings – the view extends across the Red Sea over to the mountains of Jordan basked in glorious sunshine – she can’t quite believe the position in which she finds herself.

“I am certainly pinching myself right now; the hotel is fantastic,” she says.  “I’ve done the rounds of the junior tournaments and always trying to save money for accommodation, and we’re in the fortunate position where we are able to benefit from super surroundings like this.  It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.

“For me, it’s a new experience in terms of captaining a British women’s team.  I have captained several junior teams in the past but it’s the first time working with an adult team and, of course, that is quite a different challenge, obviously because the players are older and because I came into the role quite close to the tie.”

The stakes are significantly higher this time.  Here, Judy leads her team of Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, Heather Watson and Laura Robson, as Britain attempts to work their way up and out of the Europe/Africa Zone Group One stage for the eighth consecutive year.

Their chances have been aided by the draw.  Britain have been drawn in Pool C alongside the Netherlands, Israel and Portugal, and if they make it through the round-robin stage, will play a promotion play-off on Saturday, for which they have avoided a possible clash with Poland – who have world No.6 Agnieszka Radwanska - and Romania, generally seen as the two strongest teams in Eilat this week.

But this is regarded as a notoriously difficult section to progress from.  Even the presence of former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki last year was not enough to prevent Denmark from suffering relegation.  Judy is hopeful that her side can earn a World Group Two play-off, possibly on home soil in April, but rightfully remains cautious.

 “I don’t think any of the matches will be easy as every team has got some very strong players,” she points out.  “We did a lot of scouting of our opponents during the Australian swing and we have a lot of footage and information.  We have been able to brief our girls very well on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and hopefully prepare them as well as we can for what is ahead.

“I think we have a side capable of getting out of this group but it will be a difficult thing to do.  There are 15 teams in the group and only two will get the chance to get into a play-off for the next level.  It will be tough, but I think if everybody plays to their potential and stays healthy, then we have as good a chance as anybody else.”

Britain arrived last Thursday and preparations have went well, according to all.  The captain has been hard at work analysing video footage, and has been so focused on her job that she did not see any of her son’s epic five-set Australian Open semi-final match with Novak Djokovic last week.

Judy was courtside for Andy’s first few matches in Melbourne, but had to fly home early last week to be ready for her duties in Eilat.  A sacrifice perhaps, but one she feels is well worth it.

“I think if you are going to take on a role like this, you have to do it properly and you have to show the same commitment to the girls as you would hope they would show to you and the team” she says.

“For me, if I’m going to take it on, it’s just one of those things.  The ties are always at the beginning of February, it’s always going to clash with the Australian Open and I’ve seen Andy in a couple of finals there anyway, so I reckon if he’s going to win one of these things, it won’t make any difference whether I am there or not.”

The tweets and chat show that the British team appear to be a happy bunch.  Not that there wasn’t fun before under previous captain Nigel Sears, but the fact there is a roll-up dartboard in one of their rooms this year tells the story. 

But the real work begins today.