It is the World Cup of tennis, Britain’s most important tie since the Lawn Tennis Association was founded in 1888. Tickets sold out within minutes, millions will watch on television and a nation will hold its breath. Can Britain beat Belgium in Ghent to win the Davis Cup for the first time since 1936?
This unexpected chance for tennis to attract new fans, and players, is largely down to the efforts of a very talented Scot. If Andy Murray is the name on your lips, think again. His name is Leon Smith.
Glasgow-born Smith likens his role as Davis Cup captain to that of a football team manager. He is the Jose Mourinho or Arsène Wenger of tennis, though without the tantrums or dramas. Like those two he never played at the top level, or at much of any level. He was a born coach, and he has revolutionised the way Britain plays.
Davis Cup final: How to watch
Day one (singles): BBC2 from 12:15pm, Eurosport 2 from 11:45am
Day two (doubles): BBC1 from 2:05pm, Eurosport 2 from 1:45pm
Day three (singles): BBC2 from 11:50am, Eurosport 2 from 11:45am
He admires Alex Ferguson and Dave Brailsford, who brought so much success, respectively, to Manchester United and Britain’s top cyclists. Smith has a data analyst who assesses opponents both before and during matches, from the dressing room, tracking every shot and advising on tactics.
Leon Smith with Andy Murray in 2006
“It’s especially useful with big servers, even more so on the big points,” says Smith, whose support team outnumbers the players and includes two physios, a nutritionist, a doubles coach and a doctor.
“This approach didn’t happen before,” says Smith, who worked in elite junior coaching for the LTA before taking the Davis Cup role in 2010. “I was a complete rookie when I started, very much aware I hadn’t played on tour and wasn’t in a position to bark orders at the players. So the analysis helped. They like to see you’ve done your homework.
“It was a big surprise when I got the job. We were in such a lowly place, in a relegation place in group two. We could only get better.”
They did. Under Smith, Britain returned to the top level, beating the US in successive years and are now favourites to beat Belgium in the final. Smith even found a way to win without Andy Murray, who sat out a couple of ties in 2012 and 2013, the years he won Olympic gold, the US Open and Wimbledon.
Andy and Jamie Murray
Lesser-ranked players such as Dan Evans and James Ward had to step up. They did, and beat Slovakia, “who had a top-100 ranked player,” says Smith. “Then we had an even better win, minus Andy, against Russia.” Britain came from 2–0 down to win 3–2: a comeback Britain hadn’t achieved since beating Germany in 1930.
“That was a big deal for us, but it was for Andy, too. I wanted to show we were passionate and professional, and those games did that.”
Smith, 39, has known Andy Murray since he first saw him hitting balls aged four or five, and coached him throughout his teenage years.
“The skills Andy has now were there then. His tactical nous was amazing. He would find ways of winning when he wasn’t playing well, breaking his opponent’s rhythm, forcing mistakes. Even off the court he was special. You could show him a draw sheet for a tournament and he’d go through every player saying, ‘This is how to beat this one, how to beat that one.’ His memory and attention to detail were phenomenal.”
It sounds as though Murray would make a good Davis Cup captain himself when his playing days are over. “Absolutely,” says Smith. “I’ve never known anyone so supportive of his teammates. He would be a dream Davis Cup captain. Phenomenal.”