There have been times when you wonder whether the reputation of British tennis can fall any lower, but the nation's Davis Cup team last night suffered the most humiliating defeat in their history. Having been relegated last year to Group Two of the Europe Africa Zone, effectively the Davis Cup's third division, Britain were beaten 3-2 in Vilnius by Lithuania, whose team comprised the country's only three players – each of them teenagers – with a world ranking.
The nation that hosts the world's most famous tournament and has played in more Davis Cups than any other country – only Britain have played every year since the competition was launched 110 years ago – went down to a fifth successive defeat for the first time ever.
There could hardly have been a greater contrast between Britain and their conquerors. While Lithuania's national tennis federation has an annual budget of less than £100,000, the Lawn Tennis Association, operating out of its swish £30m national centre in Roehampton, received more than £29m last year from Wimbledon profits alone. Britain has 52 men with world singles rankings and the leading players receive better funding than their counterparts in almost every other country.
Lithuanian broadcasters must have been tempted to mimic the Norwegian commentator who greeted his country's 1981 football World Cup victory over England with the cry: "Can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher! Your boys took one hell of a beating!"
John Lloyd's team had looked likely to avoid such a beating when Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski put the visitors into a 2-1 lead with victory in the doubles on Saturday, but in yesterday's reverse singles 19-year-old Ricardas Berankis beat James Ward 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 before 18-year-old Laurynas Grigelis completed the greatest day in Lithuanian tennis history by beating Dan Evans 6-7, 7-5, 6-0, 2-6, 6-4.
Evans' defeat was a shattering blow. The tie's first four rubbers had all gone according to rankings, but Grigelis, the world No 521, is ranked 269 places lower than Evans. It was the second successive five-sets defeat for the 19-year-old from Birmingham, who is regarded as the best British prospect of his generation but has now lost all four of his Davis Cup singles rubbers.
The weekend's result will cast huge doubts over Lloyd's future, though it would be unfair to burden him with the responsibility for this defeat. It is not the captain's fault that the country has failed to produce any more singles players remotely close to the class of Andy Murray, who chose to miss this tie in order to prepare for his next tournament in Indian Wells. Lloyd was dealt a further blow last week when Jamie Baker, who would have been a strong contender for one of the singles berths, was injured in training.
Asked whether he would be stepping down, Lloyd said it was too early for such talk. "I'm devastated for the team and more so for Dan, as I thought he worked his butt off," Lloyd said. "I felt sorry for him more than anybody else."
Lloyd gave credit to the Lithuanians. "They don't have as many players to pick from as we do but their players are good," he said. "We obviously didn't have our No 1 playing and that was certainly an evening-out point. It was a 50-50 sort of match before the start and they were the better team."
Britain now face a home play-off against Turkey the weekend after Wimbledon to decide who will be relegated to Group Three, the Davis Cup's lowest tier, alongside the likes of Albania, Andorra, Malta and San Marino. Given the date of the play-off Murray may well be unavailable again, which would probably leave Turkey's Marsel Ilhan, the world No 121, the highest-ranked singles player in the tie.
Berankis was the highest-ranked man in action yesterday and the former US Open junior champion won his second rubber of the weekend in impressive fashion. Ward rarely threatened an opponent who stands 54 places above him at No 198 in the rankings. Berankis won the first set tie-break 7-4 after Ward made three errors in succession and took the match with one break of serve in both the second and third sets.
Evans won the first set of the fifth rubber, but only after Grigelis lost four points in succession from 6-4 up in the tie-break. The Briton lost the second set after leading 5-4 and was swept away in the third, hitting double-faults on break point in all three of his service games.
Having made a spirited response in the fourth set, the Briton missed his chance when he failed to convert two break points at 2-2 in the decider and then dropped serve in the following game. Grigelis went 0-40 down when serving at 5-4 but recovered to secure victory on his second match point. "I didn't think he could play that good for five sets, but he did," Evans said.
Lloyd added: "Grigelis was at times stunning. His backhand was absolutely brilliant. If I was going to put one shot that turned the match, it was at 2-1 in the fifth, break point, and he had a backhand that hit both lines. It was not a percentage shot that even a top 20 player would go for. But he went for it and made it. I thought he was absolutely brilliant."