It has been some start to 2012 for Britain’s tennis players. So encouraging that I was almost tempted to spend my Monday finding a Geri Halliwell Union Jack dress to wear with pride for the rest of the year. Quite apart from the fact that I’d look like a hippo in a tutu, it’s also perhaps tempting fate a little. After all, it’s only February.
But there’s real reason to depart from the usual Grinch-type attitude to British tennis. The ‘why do we only have one player’ debate. The ‘when will we win a grand slam’ conundrum. And not just one reason, many reasons.
Cast your minds back through the January fog to the beginning of this year’s Australian Open and the presence of six Britons in the main draw, all of them there by merit, the most for 20 years. Admittedly, just one made it into the second round, some had tough draws, some didn’t, but that doesn’t mean we should forget they got there in the first place. Notably, James Ward made it through grand slam qualifying for the first time, Laura Robson for the second.
While Andy Murray went on to reach his fifth consecutive Grand Slam semi-final, Kyle Edmund and Josh Ward-Hibbert reached the junior quarter-finals, topped off by Liam Broady and Ward-Hibbert claiming the boys’ doubles title, the third slam in a row that had ended with some sort of British junior champion.
A week later, the British Fed Cup team became the first to escape the tentacles of the 15-strong Europe/Africa Zone Group I since 1993. Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, Heather Watson and Laura Robson, gelled together under Judy Murray’s enthusiasm and darts-sharp attention to detail, drew a lot of looks in Eilat, Israel, not just because of their results, dropping just one rubber throughout the week, but because of their effervescent team spirit. From decorated water bottles to inventive changeover chants , the odd rap, and a lot of laughter, Team GB were looked upon with envy by some of the other more discombobulated nations in attendance.
What other event could possibly cause two overly-dedicated holiday makers to sit up hunched over an Israeli live stream until 5am?
One week further into February, on the banks of the Clyde, four more Brits produced another landmark result.
Two years ago, Dan Evans lost the crucial fifth rubber in a gloomy snow-covered sports hall in Vilnius, Lithuania, a loss that sent the British Davis Cup team down into a relegation play-off to avoid falling into the Davis Cup’s lowest tier. Evans was the scapegoat for everything that has been wrong with British tennis, an immensely talented, yet over-indulged 21- year-old, who seemed to leap from controversy to controversy while promising a lot and not achieving it.
Two years later, Evans, called into Leon Smith’s side to replace Andy Murray last weekend, won the first two Davis Cup rubbers of his career, the second in five sets, to earn Team GB a 3-2 win over the Slovak Republic, and put them within two wins of reaching the World Group.
Evans is still a wee bit unpredictable, a little bit lippy, and on the small side for a tennis player. But who cares. His tennis was something else.
The Americans may scoff at our exuberance, chuckling to themselves at the troop of British scribes who follow Andy Murray’s every bite of sushi, but for the first time in a little while, Britain is a nation that other countries don’t want to draw.
Which is why it was a bit cruel of the arithmetic to place three of Britain’s Fed Cup heroes within a finger’s breadth of each other in the recent qualifying draw in Doha. Anne Keothavong and Laura Robson faced off in the first round, Keothavong winning, to set up a date with Heather Watson. Keothavong won again, making it into the main draw, and then winning again (against Tamira Paszek) to make it to the second round. So that’s something, at least.
But that’s the perils of having more than one Brit in a tournament.
There was another encouraging result this weekend, far down the yellow brick road to Grand Slam success, but important nonetheless. Britain’s 12&U girls team came seventh in the Tennis Europe Winter Cup in Sheffield, having defeated Belarus, now a Grand Slam-winning nation, in the play-offs. Food for the future.
Add to that, less important in the grand scheme, but an achievement nonetheless, the performance of the British vets in the ITF Senior World Championships this weekend, Lucie Ahl, Karen Cross and Leyla Ogan claiming the gold medal in the women’s 35s Suzanne Lenglen Cup, while Colin Smith, Nick Lester, James Smith and Paul Martin won bronze in the men’s 35s.
One good week, or two, of course, is no good in a sport that operates for 52 weeks of the year, and then starts all over again. Should Britain really become the nation of warriors that Roger Draper has longed for for so long, they have to keep on winning.
The British Davis Cup team, up to a Davis Cup ranking of No.33, their highest since July 2009, will be back at the Braehead Arena for the fourth tie in a row to take on Belgium on the first weekend in April. Win that one, and that means beating the Rochus brothers, the pony-tailed Ruben Bemelmans, and Steve Darcis, and they’ll be into the World Group play-offs in September.
The last time Team GB was in that position was September 2007, taking on Croatia on Wimbledon’s No.1 Court in what was Tim Henman’s farewell.
The Fed Cup team meanwhile will have a play-off their own to think about, on the last weekend in April, and will face one of France, Switzerland, Sweden or Argentina with the draw to be made on Valentine’s Day.
And in betwixt and between the players go back to being individuals, the likes of Murray, Baltacha, Keothavong, Watson and Robson competing or trying to compete at Indian Wells and Miami, as will be Ross Hutchins, Colin Fleming, Jamie Murray and Ken Skupski in the doubles, perhaps Jonny Marray and Jamie Delgado as well. James Ward, Evans and many others will be hard at work on the Challenger and ITF circuits.
So I’m still going to buy me a Union Jack. Just not a dress. Perhaps a badge. Because it’s a good time to be a Brit in the press room