Andy Murray's dramatically unexpected proclamation of lingering problems with ankle ligaments has pitched into chaos the battle plans of Britain's captain, Jeremy Bates, for the Davis Cup Euro/African Zone tie against Serbia and Montenegro this week. Will Murray be fit enough to play in an event specially located in Scotland because of his expected participation? We shall not know, says the lad himself, until Wednesday, less than 48 hours before he is due to be in action on the opening day at the long-ago sold-out Braehead Arena near Glasgow.
Having suffered further damage in his first-round match at the Masters Series event in Miami 10 days ago to an ankle he first injured last summer, Murray must be a serious doubt. Following the scan at Surrey's Kingston Hospital on Thursday, the 18-year-old British No 1 practised at the LTA headquarters at Queen's Club where, according to a witness, "he had a hit but didn't do any running at all".
On the brink of a potentially exhausting European clay-court season, immediately followed by Wimbledon, Murray would be foolish to take risks if doubts exist about full fitness, and he has already given clear indication in his recent meteoric rise in the rankings of being eminently sensible in such matters. The consequence of Murray's absence is the near certainty that Britain can write off hopes of a victory which would lift them into September's World Group play-offs, since Bates rates this occasion, even with Murray, "a hell of a rough match" against "one of the strongest countries we have played".
These views may come as a surprise to many who might dismiss the opposition as tiddlers, but the former Yugo-slavia have not lost to Britain for 42 years.
Overseeing his first home tie, Bates is relieved to have been able to install a quick carpet at the Braehead Arena. "I am sick of playing on clay," he said. "The whole point of having a home tie is that you can get the right court, so I am keen to make sure we have a surface which is very good for our players but the least favourable for them."
Having won his first Tour title on a hard court in California and reached a final indoors as part of an astonishing rise in the past 12 months from 411 to 41 in the rankings, the importance to Britain's cause of Murray's presence needs no emphasising. In his absence we would be heavily reliant on the durable skills and experience of Greg Rusedski, since the quality descends sharply after that, with the ever-willing, but rarely successful, Arvind Parmar as third man and the 26-year-old Norfolk native James Auckland called up for his debut because he is (at 123) our highest-ranked doubles player at the moment.
Bates wanted to name Tim Henman and Alex Bogdanovich, but both declined. If they had said yes, Bates claimed, "it would have been the best team we have had for 30 years". Now it could be one of the weakest ever. Henman, of course, called it a day after 10 years of hard labour in his country's cause, but still appears to be considering the possibility of a return. "When I spoke to him he said, 'Never say never'," said Bates. "I'm not sure if it's tongue in cheek, but I will keep asking."
Bogdanovich is a sadder case. Winner of three Challenger titles in recent months, he is clearly worthy of a place but insists he is still shattered by his collapse from a winning position against Israel in Tel Aviv a year ago. "I spent a lot of time talking to him," said Bates. "But ultimately he didn't feel he was mentally prepared to play Davis Cup again."
While sympathetic, Bates offered this advice: "If you fall off the horse, you get back on it. He is as ready now as he ever will be. To me, Boggy is a top-100 player, probably top-50. But the mind is everything."
In the case of Parmar, who cast away near-victories in ties against Ecuador and Luxembourg and who could find himself in the front line again, Bates put it down to "bad tennis rather than nerves", adding: "I know what I'm gonna get from Arv. He is going to serve well. He is going to hit his forehand great, and is always going to be there or thereabouts. Whether there or thereabouts is good enough is another thing."
So just who are these Serbs who make Bates cautious? Their top-ranked singles man at 59, Boris Pashanski, is unlikely to play since he is a clay-court specialist. Instead, the singles slots will probably go to Novak Djokovic (66) and Janko Tipsarevic (97), with Nenad Zimonjic certain to form part of the doubles team since he is inside the world's top 10.
Djokovic, who beat Henman in Rotterdam six weeks ago, is a Balkan version of Murray, a week younger than our 18-year-old and a fast-rising talent who was the youngest to be listed in the world's top 100 in 2005. It is no coincidence that he and Murray get along so well that they played doubles together at the Australian Open in January.
A popular figure on the tour, Djokovic has known Murray since - as 12-year-olds - he was beaten 6-0 7-6 by the Scot at a tournament in France. Two years later the Serb won 6-3 6-3 at an Italian Under-14 event. Braehead would be their first senior clash.
Djokovic says he is envious of the support Murray enjoys in Britain because tennis remains a minority sport in his own country, far behind football and trailing basketball, volleyball, water polo and handball. "We don't even have a tennis centre, just a couple of indoor courts," he said. "We all had to leave the country to get our careers going. So this is a very important match for us. We are playing for the future of tennis in our country."
With that sort of comment, you can understand why Bates expects a rough ride up in Scotland, even with Murray available.Reuse content