What are the key ingredients needed to win the Davis Cup? A star player? A strong doubles team? Two solid singles players? Looking back on the make-up of previous winners there is no foolproof combination, and much depends on the players available at the time. But a strong all-round team, rather than one that relies heavily on a world-class player, feels like the optimal blend.
Great Britain have a good team this year. They have two singles players in the top 25 in the world – world No 12 Cameron Norrie and world No 25 Dan Evans – and two of the best doubles players in the world in Joe Salisbury and Neal Skupski. Yes, Great Britain won the Davis Cup in 2015 with peak Andy Murray leading the way, but this line-up has far better strength in depth, as captain Leon Smith admitted ahead of the tournament.
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“Now you look at the group of players and it’s a privilege to be able to select this group moving forward. I’m excited to be around them. They’ve got a lot of years left, as well, which is really important.”
Smith has been in charge since 2010 and when he first took over Great Britain hadn’t won a Davis Cup in nearly three years. They had James Ward, Jamie Baker, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski to thank for earning a victory over Turkey that prevented them from being relegated to the bottom tier of the competition.
But the improvements over the last decade have been huge. Andy and Jamie Murray have been integral to that and seem to have laid a good platform for further success. However, this defeat to Germany comes as something of a surprise.
Perhaps the signs were there in the group stage as matches were lost in the ties against France and Czech Republic. Even though Great Britain still topped the group, Norrie did not look on top of his game in the singles and Skupski and Salisbury were beaten in straight sets by French duo Nicolas Mahut and Arthur Rinderknech. Evans’ demolition of Peter Gojowczyk should have set Great Britain up to beat Germany, but Norrie went down in three against world No 51 Jan-Lennard Struff before a spectacular second-set tie-break comeback decided the doubles.
Salisbury did not hold back in his assessment of the way the tie ended.
"We're 5-0 up, we should win the tie-break, simple as that. We lost seven points in a row. There is no team in the world that should do that.
“We tried our best but it just wasn't good enough. We are gutted how it turned out, but also just very disappointed at the level, especially from me."
Germany clearly deserve credit for their performance. They have beaten both Novak Djokovic’s Serbia and Austria in the group stage and Kevin Krawietz and Tim Puetz, both ranked in the top 20 in the world in doubles, have formed a strong team and are unbeaten so far. With just three rubbers now instead of five there has been more significance placed on the doubles and Krawietz and Puetz came through in a tight match that could have gone either way.
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Should Great Britain have gone further though? That’s a question Smith will no doubt be mulling over the next few days, and the truth is that perhaps the performances were partly a consequence of a long season that has been made even longer by the new format of the Davis Cup finals. Norrie and Evans have both played plenty of tennis this year and although Norrie should be feeling confident after recently winning his first Masters event at Indian Wells, that may have taken something out of him. Salisbury and Skupski have also been busy, with Salisbury making his Davis Cup debut last week having travelled straight to Innsbruck from the final of the ATP Finals in Turin.
But every team is in a similar position, and Smith seemed to hit the right note with his relaxed preparations before the event.
“Before we came, Leon made it clear to us it wouldn’t be a stressful lead-up, it would be a lot of fun,” explained Evans last week. “I think that’s why the backroom staff are who they are because they’ve made that pretty clear from the day we got here, that we’d have a lot of fun and still be professional but keep the sessions nice and short and sharp. I feel fresh.”
Evans, who has been a mainstay of the team for the last decade, looked to be getting better as the tournament progressed, describing his display against Gojowczyk as “some of the best tennis I’ve played all year”. He will likely be a part of the team for a few more years and continue to lead the singles with Norrie, who will be hoping to cement his place as the British No 1 when the new season resumes. There's also Andy Murray to fit into the singles if he continues his upward trend in 2022, and potentially a return for Jamie Murray to compete for a doubles spot. Perhaps 19-year-old Jack Draper will also be a factor if he climbs the rankings.
Great Britain, who next face a Davis Cup in qualifier in March, should still have the makings of a good team for a few years. Whether they will be stronger 12 months from now is tough to predict, which is why right now this feels like a missed opportunity for Smith’s team.
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