The withdrawal of Andy Murray from Britain's Davis Cup squad to face Argentina in Buenos Aires this week intoned the final rites on what had always promised, in any case, to be a swift burial. A task which appeared, at best, virtually impossible has now become utterly pointless.
One statistic says everything about this World Group mismatch: there are 18 Argentin-ians ranked higher than our new emergency No 1, Alex Bogdanovic, so the hosts could field their fourth-best team and still expect to win comfortably.
The merits of Murray's rejection of selection, claiming problems with his right knee, are the subject of much more speculation than Britain's prospects. While making all the right regretful noises, he was frank enough to call his action "a preventive measure". What Murray is keen to prevent is a slide down the world rankings, having already dropped out of the top 10 after losing in the first round of the Australian Open.
The first three months of the 2007 season, subsequently wrecked by back and wrist damage, were easily his best, with a tournament win in San Jose, runner-up in Doha and semi-finals in Memphis, Indian Wells and Miami. So he needs at least to match those achievements just to replace the points that will be dropping off his total, and he made an excellent start by winning Doha.
"The next two months are very important to me if I am to maintain my challenge to the top players," was Murray's comment on his schedule, which does not include representing his countryas a priority. Indeed, Murray said exactly that just recently.
So turning down a flight to South America to play on clay at a time of year when the tour events he is interested in are staged either on hard surfaces or indoors was a no-brainer really. The patella problem with his right knee is something he has lived, and played, with since junior days, so it is perhaps better described as a condition rather than an injury. Hence the "preventive" comment.
Not that the news did not leave John Lloyd, the British captain, "totally shocked". Not surprised, but still shocked, particularly at the way the information was delivered to him. The rest of the British squad have been based over the past week in Chile, at Viña del Mar, competing, or attempting to do so, in the ATP event there. Murray's agent, Patricio Apey, is Chilean and had helped arrange things for Lloyd and his team, so it seemed natural when Apey rang him on Wednesday to discuss how things were going.
"Then Patricio said he had something else to tell me," said Lloyd, "and I knew straightaway what it was going to be. We were expecting Andy to join us the next day here in Chile instead of his original plan to fly straight to Buenos Aires, so we all thought, 'Great, we have an extra three or four days together'. The team were deflated but we adjusted and that's the end of the matter. No one is talking about it any more, no one is trying to second-guess what could have been.
"The odds against us were big anyway but I had a gut feeling about his chances, I honestly believed he could have won both his singles matches. He had the sort of opportunity you never forget in an atmosphere like we are going to face, challenging and hostile. For Andy to have come up against a couple of the best clay-court players in the world in this environment would have been priceless.
"I believe he would have reacted just like Lleyton Hewitt did in the Davis Cup, when he beat Gustavo Kuerten in Brazil. I was really looking forward to seeing what he was made of. It would have been the chance to pull off a huge upset. It will certainly be a huge upset if we win now. We have four guys [Bogdanovic, Jamie Baker, Jamie Murray and Ross Hutchins] who have a chance to step up and show they are not scared of what they face."
Exactly what Britain face was outlined by Ross's father, Paul Hutchins, now head of men's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association and a Davis Cup captain for 12 years from 1975-87. He called the 1981 clash in Argentina, which Britain lost 5-0 without winning even one set, the toughest of his 31 ties.
"Their team was Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc. Out there Vilas was a tennis god. I remember him using his racket like an orchestra conductor uses his baton. He would wave it at a key stage of the match to bring the crowd up to a crescendo." A kindly man, Hutchins recalls the reception for Britain, a year before the Falklands war, as "total dedication for their own players, not nasty, just over-enthusiasm".
The 14,500-seat Estadio Parque Roca is sold out, and Lloyd does not feel Murray's absence will affect the attendance. "Even if we had Donald Duck in the team they would still turn out." Like Murray, Lloyd has a right-knee problem, but much more serious and urgently requiring a replacement. A security team will guard the British squad in case of trouble, and Lloyd quipped: "I have told the others the guards' job is to throw a cordon round me because I can't run."
His knee operation is provisionally scheduled for 10 March, with a later alternative date in case Britain win this week and are required to play the next round in April. "But I think the March date is safe now," he said, managing a smile.Reuse content