Leon Smith’s decision on Tuesday to leave Andy Murray out of Great Britain’s Davis Cup team to play France in the quarter-finals in Rouen next week was more or less an open secret.
As much as the historic team competition has stirred emotions, and as much as Murray would love to be part of their onward march to the semi-finals in September, injury has forced the world No1 to look over his shoulder at not only the proximity of Novak Djokovic, the giant he displaced last year, but the steadily building challenge of the ageless Roger Federer.
Since Murray’s collapse against the Canadian Vasek Pospisil – misleadingly ranked 119 in the world – in Indian Wells two weeks ago, and subsequent revelations that he is struggling with a “tear” to his right elbow, he was always a long-shot to play in the quarter-final, which begins on Friday week, 7 April.
As Smith has done often in the past the team captain has left the door open for his fellow Scot to make a late appearance in the Normandy capital, and he can be added to the four-man squad up to an hour before next Thursday’s draw. As his brother Jamie hinted with disarming candour in Miami this week, the chances of his brother contributing against the French – who are his personal bunnies – are slim, because he can’t serve with full power and has directed his attention to the start of the European clay-court season.
That begins in Monte Carlo on 15 April, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in a semi-finals last year, but gets more serious in Madrid, where he reached the final, losing to Djokovic. From there until November, Murray built his points portfolio; after Roland Garros, Djokovic slowly fell apart.
Murray is due to tune up in a charity march for Roger Federer the day after Rouen and five days before Monte Carlo, although he might yet choose to give all of them a miss. These are uncertain times.
The world No1’s contribution to Great Britain’s hopes can hardly ever have been a subject of dispute, although Smith, correctly, has fostered team spirit by giving others their due. So he has put his faith in Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans to contest the singles, with Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot the familiar doubles pairing on the Saturday.
Smith said: “In Dan and Kyle we have two top-50 singles players who are improving all the time on the Tour and both with games capable of upsetting higher-ranked opponents. Jamie and Dom once again combine as our doubles team and will draw much confidence after performing so well recently to win key rubbers against Serbia and Canada to defeat Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil.”
He added: “Facing France in a Davis Cup tie is a tough test for any group of players, and this Rouen quarter-final will be no exception. They have the strongest depth of squad by far, out of any nation in the competition.”
France beat Japan – who featured star Kei Nishikori – to get this far, although the team captain sacked Gaël Monfils for what he perceived as lack of commitment, and was without Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has recently become a father for the first time. Whoever they put up, they will be dangerous on the clay of Rouen.
The last time they met, Great Britain won 3-1 in the quarter-finals at Queen’s in 2015, going on to beat Belgium in the final in Ghent for the team’s first trophy in 79 years. The winners next week play either Serbia or Spain in the semi-finals in September.
This campaign, Great Britain beat Canada 3-2 in their opening match in Ottawa last month without Andy Murray, who it later transpired had been suffering from shingles during the Australian Open, where he was a shock loser in the quarter-finals to long-shot journeyman Mischa Zverev.
Murray returned, apparently healthy, to win the Dubai title against a field of reduced strength, but his quick loss to Pospisil – who won both of his singles rubbers in Ottawa against Edmund and Evans – was the first sign of trouble. Not so worrying as that for Djokovic, whose own defeat in Indian Wells, by Nick Kyrgios, and unreliable right elbow forced his simultaneous withdrawal from Miami.
Both left the smoke of battle to recuperate, knowing they could not afford to postpone their recuperation until the summer. Uncertainty is flooding through tennis again, and that at least lends the sport much-needed excitement.