On Sunday, Great Britain returned to the Davis Cup World Group. Britain, a team who just three years ago were struggling at the foot of international tennis. A team who have been without their best player for most of their ties during this rise.
Captain Leon Smith has overseen an incredible ascent in an extremely short time. Just how has he achieved this success?
John Lloyd’s last Davis Cup tie in charge of Great Britain, on March 7 2010, saw Dan Evans defeated in a heart-breaking fifth set in the decisive final rubber. It was against Lithuania in the first round of Europe/Africa Zone Group II, only one tier above the lowest possible level of the competition.
His opponent was 20-year-old Laurynas Grigelis, ranked 521 at the time. Evans was the world No. 252.
The defeat prompted Lloyd’s resignation—he became the first captain ever to oversee five successive defeats for Britain—and the LTA made a bold move. Greg Rusedski was hotly tipped to replace Lloyd, but, rather than opting for a "big name," they chose Leon Smith, a man who had never competed at elite level.
At the time Roger Draper, the head of the LTA, told the BBC the players wanted a captain who was "embedded in British tennis." They certainly received that.
Despite being just 34, Smith had been involved in coaching at the national level for eight years. He had coached Andy Murray through some of his formative years, guiding him to an Orange Bowl victory. He was a man the players and the LTA trusted, but, nevertheless, this was an extremely risky appointment from both a PR and a performance perspective.
The next match was one of the most important in Great Britain’s long and illustrious Davis Cup history. Should Smith lose his first tie in charge, a playoff against Turkey, the third-most-successful nation in the competition’s history would be relegated to the bottom tier, competing alongside the likes of tennis minnows Andorra and San Marino. The humiliation would be total, the journey back long and arduous.
Smith’s task was made even harder when Andy Murray announced that he would sit out the decisive tie. Alex Bogdanovic had already withdrawn following a row with the LTA over funding and wild cards, and so Britain were missing their two best players and facing an ignominious defeat
It never happened. Britain swept aside Turkey in Eastbourne, defeating them 5-0 with no players in the world’s top 250. What happened next would mark a truly stunning rise.
The following year Smith’s side were back in Europe/Africa Zone Group II, but this time they made a much better effort at improving on their position in the third tier of the competition. Despite only having one player in the top 1,000, Tunisia made a strong fist of it in Round 1, and it took an 8-6 fifth set victory from James Ward over world No. 325 Malek Jaziri to clinch the tie 3-1 rather than force a decisive rubber.
The second round against Luxembourg marked the return of Andy Murray. Reinstated to his position in the side, the brothers Murray picked up the three points required to take Britain to a promotion tie against Hungary, where a 5-0 win showed that Leon Smith and his side were ready to compete at the next level.
It was here where the drama really began for British tennis fans. The first round of Europe/Africa Zone I in 2012 handed Britain a tie against Slovakia. As with the tie against Lithuania in 2010, it came down to Dan Evans in the final rubber.
His opponent was Martin Klizan, ranked No. 120 and 156 places higher. Evans had never won a Davis Cup tie before that weekend, but remarkably he came through a nerve-shredding fifth set to vanquish his demons and guide his nation to a tie against Belgium for a place in the World Group playoffs.
Again without Andy Murray and comfortably outranked in every rubber, Britain lost out to the Belgians 4-1 to end Leon Smith’s five-match winning run. Not to be deterred though, Smith returned in 2013 determined to return to the World Group.
The tie that would decide whether they would make the play-offs this year was against 2002 and 2006 champions Russia. Featuring world No. 67 Dmitry Tursunov and No. 80 Evgeny Donskoy, the British team of Evans, James Ward, Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray were comprehensively outgunned.
The tie at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry was as dramatic as any that Great Britain’s Davis Cup fans have seen. Dan Evans was not originally selected, but a change of heart from Leon Smith gave him a chance to continue his incredible Davis Cup story. Ranked No. 325 at the time, he again suffered an agonising five-set defeat, this time to Tursunov. 1-0 Russia.
James Ward was next up, himself No. 154 in the world and facing an uphill battle against Donskoy, but he raced into a surprising two-set lead. The Russian raised his game and levelled it at two sets all before a dramatic fifth set saw Ward’s serve broken in the 13th game and Donskoy come through 4-6 4-6 7-5 6-2 8-6.
At this time, with the home side 2-0 down against a strong Russian side, it looked over for another year. Britain hadn’t come back from two down since 1930. But the tie wasn’t over.
A convincing doubles win by Fleming and Marray halved the deficit before Ward and Evans returned on Sunday to switch opponents. A task no less difficult for either. Ward met Tursunov first and yet another five-set match followed. This time, though, Ward emerged the winner, and it came down to one man. Dan Evans. Again.
Giving up 245 ranking spots to Donskoy, Evans played the match of his life. A three-set demolition and Britain were in the play-offs to return to the World Group.
Last weekend, they did it. The tie against Croatia was Britain’s and Murray’s. The Scot returned to the side to win the decisive rubber against Ivan Dodig and seal a 3-1 win. The most extraordinary comeback to tennis’ top table was complete.
Considering where Great Britain were when Leon Smith took over, the change in fortunes is a tribute to the outstanding job the young Scotsman has done. Perhaps this could mark a lesson for the rest of tennis and indeed the rest of sport.
For too long, coaches who haven’t played at the highest level have been treated with a stigma that borders on the ridiculous. The top jobs have traditionally been reserved for former players who "know the game inside out" rather than those who have learned from the beginning to train and manage sportsmen.
Leon Smith is just one example of a career coach who has gone on to succeed. Andre Villas-Boas is an example of a man who has never laced a pair of boots professionally yet manages at the top of his sport.
Maybe it is time for the decision makers in sport to accept, as Roger Draper did in 2010, that sometimes the best person for the job is not the one with the most illustrious playing CV, but the one who has the most to give to the position?
It has certainly done the trick for British tennis.
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