A boisterous Wimbledon crowd flocked to No 1 Court yesterday no doubt hoping to watch Andy Murray lead Britain's fight to stay in the Davis Cup's World Group. They left in subdued silence two hours later after seeing the country's best player sit on the sidelines as his brother, Jamie, and Ross Hutchins were outplayed 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 by Julian Knowle and Jürgen Melzer in what could prove to be the crucial rubber in this relegation play-off.
Austria now lead 2-1, so Andy Murray and Alex Bogdanovic have to win their reverse singles today against Melzer and Alexander Peya respectively to avoid relegation to the Europe Africa Zone. Considering Bogdanovic's record on the big occasion – he has not won a "live" Davis Cup rubber in five attempts and has lost in all seven of his first-round matches at Wimbledon – John Lloyd, Britain's captain, must have known that the doubles line-up was always going to be his biggest decision.
Although Hutchins and the elder Murray brother were his nominated team, Lloyd had been expected to ask Andy and Jamie to take on Knowle and Melzer, especially after Andy was not unduly extended in his singles on Friday. However, Andy had been troubled by a leg muscle problem in the week and although he told Lloyd he was available, the captain chose instead to rest his leading man.
Lloyd said: "Andy has this strained abductor that he seems to get when he changes playing surfaces. He got it from the first day when we started practising here. He obviously played pretty well yesterday, but it was just a little bit sore, particularly towards the end of the match. I had to weigh things up. You have to win three matches to win the tie and I thought this was the best option. I didn't want to risk Andy going out there and potentially playing in a long match and then going up against Melzer and not being 100 per cent.
"Andy said: 'I'm available to play,' but I talked to the medical guys and had to weigh it up and make my decision. I think the best thing is to judge it at the end of the day. If we lose the match then I'll take the heat."
Some spectators were surprised to see Murray practising on an outdoor court around the time yesterday's doubles match was starting, but Lloyd insisted: "He's just warming up. He's not diving around. He's basically just stroking the ball. If hehadn't had this little niggle he'd have been out there today for a couple of hours, instead of just stroking the ball gently for 25 minutes. He's been having treatment the whole time."
Hutchins is a decent doubles player – he is No 86 in the world rankings – but is clearly not in the younger Murray's class. While Murray has limited doubles experience, he likes playing the game and has had some success in the past. Given the war of words between himself and Melzer over the last few days, he would surely have relished the chance to upstage the Austrian No 1, even if a lengthy match might have left him struggling for fitness today.
Lloyd is clearly steeling himself for some criticism if his selection backfires, though on the evidence of yesterday's match you wonder whether Murray would have made a difference.
Knowle and Melzer played superbly throughout. Although not regular doubles partners on the main tour, the Austrians have established a solid partnership in the Davis Cup. Their understanding and teamwork was evident, while Jamie Murray and Hutchins, who had played only one competitive match together in the last three years, never had the same rapport.
Knowle, 34, was by some margin the most experienced of the four men on court. He has concentrated exclusively on doubles since 2005, reached 23 finals in the last six years and has all the strengths you would expect of a doubles specialist ranked No 15 in the world: a big serve, sound volleys, lightning reactions and a great sense of anticipation.
Melzer, 27, is more of a singles player, but adds some real flair to their game. Some of his angled forehand cross-court shots were stunning and regularly caught out the British pair.
Hutchins and Murray both have big first serves, but the Austrians repeatedly hammered huge returns back at their feet. On second serves the Austrians were merciless, particularly on Hutchins. Murray looked confident at the net in the early stages but he was soon making as many errors as his partner. By the end both players were missing routine volleys on a regular basis.
Murray dropped serve in the opening game and although the Britons broke Melzer immediately and were competitive until 3-3 the match quickly slipped from their grasp. Hutchins dropped his serve in the next game before the Austrians served out for the first set.
The Britons were soon 4-0 down in the second set andalthough they broke Melzer at 5-2 Hutchins again dropped his serve in the following game. From 1-1 in the final set the Austrians won five games in a row to complete an overwhelming victory.
Melzer, asked about Andy Murray's absence, said: "I think it lifted both of us. He's a great tennis player and can do some damage. We expected him to be on the court today. He wasn't and I think it was good for us."
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