Great Britain being disappointed to just reach a Davis Cup semi-final feels almost as surreal as the events of last year when they only went and won the damned thing for the first time in 79 years.
The country’s so-called “wilderness years” in the world team event of men’s tennis have been well documented. When they lost to Argentina in 2008 – the same nation that ended their defence in Glasgow on Sunday – it was their 23rd consecutive loss in the elite 16-team world group stage. Those were the good times. Most of the previous three decades had been spent bumping around the Euro/Africa Zone, occasionally slipping to wince-inducing defeats by the likes of Lithuania and Monaco.
Of course, GB’s rise to unlikely Davis Cup superpower is primarily down to Andy Murray, whose heroics in the tournament have been truly astonishing. Having one of the world’s best doubles players in his brother Jamie for those frequently pivotal Saturdays is a boon too, and the superb leadership of canny captain Leon Smith has had a clear, galvanising effect.
Of course this Scots trio can only carry the team so far and it is upon the improvement of Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund, James Ward and Dom Inglot into players capable of delivering precious points that GB’s future will be built. That wasn’t the case at the weekend unfortunately as both Edmund and Evans fell short on the back of a rare singles loss by Murray in that epic tussle with Juan Martin Del Potro, but you only have to cast your eye back to the quarter-final when the team managed without the talismanic world No 2 to beat Serbia – albeit a Serbia without Novak Djokovic to level the playing field.
Murray played through the pain barrier once again at the weekend, straining every sinew in search of what would have been a remarkable back-to-back Davis Cup success. Now that has gone there is a chance that next year’s event, for which the draw takes place this week, could see Murray scale back his involvement.
He turns 30 next May, which tends to be a portentous milestone in tennis. In 2012, Roger Federer became the first man in the open era since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Wimbledon in his 30s and the Swiss hasn’t won a grand slam since.
Captain Smith said: “All I know is here he is again this weekend having played all three days again, put his body right on the line, put his body before his own individual schedule.
“He’s a great Davis Cup player, he absolutely loves it, but he has to be smart with his schedule next year. We’ll soon find out who we’re playing next year, so we’ll figure that out.”
There remains goals to accomplish. Just when you thought Murray had banished Bunny Austin completely from the record books the old cove pops up again. He leads Murray as Britain’s most successful Davis Cup singles player with 36 wins to the Scot’s 30 – although Austin had 12 defeats to the contemporary hero’s paltry three.
Whether Murray plays or not next year, Smith knows the other team members need to continue their progress and is sure the signs are good on that score. “The most important thing for Dan and Kyle and the other players is they’re just doing a great job week in, week out,” said Smith. “Davis Cup is just two, three – in a great year, four – times a year. It’s a bonus. A few years ago it was a bit the reverse. The Davis Cup was such a big thing for them but now week in, week out [on the tour] is the most important thing and that’s exciting.
“We’ll get together in Davis Cup weeks and give it a damn good go but most important is to see Dan and Kyle joining Andy and Jamie in playing tour tennis, playing Masters series events, going deep in slams.
“This is much better and we’ve just got to try and keep continuing that momentum.”
The salt in the wound on Sunday evening was the news that Croatia had beaten France, meaning Britain would have hosted the final.
Whether Glasgow would have got the nod for that or not, it is clear that the city of Murray’s birth has become the spiritual home of the British team. Yet again the atmosphere at the Emirates Arena all weekend was sensational and these Davis Cup weekends have grown to become absolute feasts of sporting drama and entertainment.
At their best, Davis Cup ties elevate tennis to new levels – almost like a close cricket Test match they can be richly compelling five-act plays. However, it is clear the yearly grind is unsustainable with fewer top players playing regularly. There have been suggestions of making it every other year, or at least not playing Davis Cup in an Olympic year.
But that has been talked about for many years now and it continues to roll on in its current format. We can only hope that Murray continues to sprinkle his own magic dust, perhaps more selectively, on the event for some time to come.