Murray leaves reserves in the firing line
Friday 05 March 2010
It is 13 years since a British player other than Andy Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski won a live Davis Cup singles rubber. That sequence will have to end over the next three days if the only nation to play in every Davis Cup competition since the event was launched 110 years ago are to avoid the most humiliating defeat in their history. Britain face Lithuania in Vilnius, with the result by no means a foregone conclusion.
Following four successive defeats – to Argentina, Austria, Ukraine and Poland – Britain are playing this year in Europe/Africa Zone Group Two, effectively the Davis Cup's third division. The waters are not uncharted, but on Britain's only previous voyage to this outpost, between 1995 and 1996, Henman and Rusedski were around to navigate the way back.
John Lloyd, the British captain, is having to make do without his best player, Murray having decided to concentrate on preparations for his forthcoming tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. Given that the Scot is the only player in the game's top 20 not from a country in the Davis Cup's elite 16-nation World Group, it is an understandable choice.
Andrew Richardson, who beat Zimbabwe's Byron Black (ranked 220 places above him as the world No 46) at Crystal Palace in 1997, is the last Briton other than Murray, Henman or Rusedski to win a live singles rubber. Lloyd has to hope that James Ward and Dan Evans will follow Richardson's example this weekend. Jamie Baker would have been in contention for one of the singles berths but has been ruled out after suffering an ankle injury in training on Wednesday.
With Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski, the world's 41st-ranked pair, favourites to win tomorrow's doubles, Britain must look to win at least two of the four singles rubbers. Given that Lithuania's top player, Ricardas Berankis (world No 198), is the highest ranked singles player in the tie, it is likely to be crucial that Ward (No 250) and Evans (No 252) win their matches against Laurynas Grigelis (No 521).
Today's opening rubber between Ward and Grigelis could well be pivotal. Ward, 23, is making his Davis Cup debut, but has played on the main tour and won a Challenger title in Florida last year. Grigelis, 18, has only ever won two Challenger matches, although one was last month against an opponent ranked in the world's top 200.
Evans, 19, made his first Davis Cup appearance at home to Poland in September but did not win a set in his two singles rubbers. He faces a tough task today against Berankis, a former US Open junior champion and world junior No 1 who trains at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida. Berankis, 19, who has been Roger Federer's preferred practice partner in the past, reached the quarter-finals of last month's ATP event in San Jose, where his victims included the experienced Robby Ginepri and Bjorn Phau.
Lithuania, who were promoted to Group Two at the end of 2008, have competed as a separate nation since 1994. Until then Lithuanians could play only for the Soviet Union.
"It will be a large and noisy crowd, 99 per cent against us," Lloyd said. "If we win some people will say it's no big deal to beat Lithuania. If we lose it will obviously be the opposite. But for the players I believe that if you win – and I think we will – it can have a huge effect on the rest of your year. It can give you inner confidence."
Davis Cup schedule (Lithuanian names first):
Today: L Grigelis v J Ward; R Berankis v D Evans. Tomorrow: Grigelis and D Sakinis v C Fleming and K Skupski.
Sunday: Berankis v Ward; Grigelis v Evans.
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