No doubles trouble as the 'British Bryans' hit heights
Fleming and Skupski to make name for themselves in next week's Davis Cup tie
Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski have spent more time on airplanes than playing matches in recent weeks, but the prospect of adding the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to an itinerary that has already taken them this year to Chennai, Melbourne, Zagreb, San Jose, Marseille and Delray Beach is an inspiring one.
Twelve months ago the British doubles pair were ranked outside the world's top 200 and striving to make a name for themselves in minor tournaments, but a year of outstanding progress has seen them beat the Bryan brothers, win two titles on the main ATP tour and reach the top 60 in the world rankings.
The reward is a place in Britain's Davis Cup squad for next weekend's tie away to Lithuania. John Lloyd, the captain, could still change his line-up – Ross Hutchins, the country's highest-ranked doubles player, is also in the six-man party flying to Vilnius today – but Fleming and Skupski, as an established pair, look likely to be given their chance as Britain, minus Andy Murray, attempt to climb out of Europe Africa Zone Group Two, the Davis Cup's third division. "We'd love to play Davis Cup as a pair," Fleming said. "That's definitely right at the top of our agenda."
Fleming, 25, and Skupski, 26, are late developers. Fleming, from Linlithgow in the Scottish lowlands, has a first-class honours degree in Economics and Finance and had all but given up hope of a professional tennis career. Skupski, a Liverpudlian, studied Communications at Louisiana State University, where he played college tennis. The Britons played together at the World University Games but it was only towards the end of 2008, after Fleming decided to have one more crack at playing professionally, that they got together on a regular basis. They clicked instantly, winning their first four tournaments together.
In their first main tour event, at Queen's Club last summer, the Britons beat the Bryan brothers, the world's most famous doubles team, and by the end of the year they had won the titles at Metz and St Petersburg, despite having played only five tournaments at the top level. Their ranking earned direct entry to last month's Australian Open, where they reached the second round.
The win over the Bryans was a big turning point. "It changed the way I thought of myself as a tennis player," Fleming said. "It was the realisation that if we could do that then maybe we really could achieve something.
"We look up to the Bryan brothers and the way they've made a career out of playing doubles – the way that they can create an energy as a team that two individuals couldn't. It's an example we'd like to follow, though we know we're a lot of wins away from achieving what they have.
"The Bryans are a brand. That's through a lot of success on the court but also the way they've done it – looking the same, wearing the same clothes. For us the team thing has been massive. We always know what each other's doing."
The Britons wear the same gear on court and play with the same rackets and strings. Skupski said: "The Bryans have a symmetry. It makes a difference, it really does, on big points. You have a feeling that you know where your partner's going to be. It's not like two individuals playing together and trying to look the same. We feel that everything we do is the same."
The pair set their sights high – "our goal is to get into the top 10 in the world," Skupski said – and are fortunate to work with Louis Cayer, a Canadian employed by the Lawn Tennis Association who is reckoned to be one of the best doubles coaches in the world. "A lot of the other doubles guys can't believe how lucky we are to have Louis working with us – and we effectively get him for free," Fleming said.
Fleming still has ambitions in singles, but not Skupski, especially after losing to the Scot in the early days of their partnership. "I said that if I was losing to this guy I'm not playing again," Skupski said. "I was comfortable as well – it was routine," Fleming joked.
The two men have a good relationship on and off court. It helps that they have similar backgrounds and lifestyles. Skupski is to be married next year and Fleming is also in a long-term relationship. "We have very similar interests when we go to tournaments," Fleming said. "It's not like there's one of us who's always on the lookout for parties and nights out."
"We spend more time together than we do with our partners," Skupski added. "Yeah, maybe we should keep that one quiet," Fleming smiled.
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