LEON SMITH has an extra reason to wish to make history at the Emirates Arena this weekend as the Great Britain Davis Cup team seek to overcome Australia and reach a first final in almost 40 years.
Smith’s father Ronnie is from the Parkhead area, where the Emirates Arena is based. Encouraged by his influence, the Davis Cup team captain grew up a Celtic fan. So the invitation to attend a crossbar challenge against players from his boyhood heroes was too good turn down yesterday.
Indeed, after scuffing his own efforts towards goal – the Celtic players were not much better, to be fair – Smith described it as the perfect way to begin an intense few days’ preparation ahead of the eagerly awaited clash against Australia, which begins on Friday.
By Sunday there could be everything to play for. Smith would like to think those Celtic players who narrowly defeated their tennis counterparts yesterday – rather than the halfway line, shots were taken from just outside the penalty area – may lend support to his team after playing Dundee in a Premiership fixture on Sunday, just across the road.
Andy Murray was one of those who tried and narrowly failed to hit the bar. Brother Jamie’s attempts were worse but he had an excuse having lost a US Open doubles final little more than 48 hours earlier.
The mood wasn’t too upbeat among the Celtic players either after their 2-1 defeat by title rivals Aberdeen on Saturday. Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong were among those taking part yesterday.
When coming back to Glasgow became a viable option, it was an easy decisionLeon Smith
Smith hopes Celtic can re-ignite their season with wins over Ajax on Thursday and then Dundee on Sunday while also perhaps finding the time – and a ticket – to join the 8,000 or so fans at a sold-out Emirates Arena.
“It would be great [if they could come along],” he said. “But I’m biased because I’m a Celtic fan. When this crossbar challenge opportunity came along I jumped at it. I forced them [the team] over the road with me! It’s brilliant to see inside the stadium. Having sat in the stands, it’s pretty special to be out on the pitch.
“My dad was brought up in Parkhead, so it is very close to me,” he added. “Paul McStay and John Collins were my favourites – I was disappointed John wasn’t here today – and obviously Henrik Larsson.
Smith noted how football and tennis should not be regarded as unlikely bedfellows. “We had [Hibs manager] Alan Stubbs down at our last round because Andy and Jamie are Hibs followers. So Alan came down and had lunch with the team before we played France at Queen’s Club. We managed to get him on the court, despite the fact he was suited and booted.
“He wasn’t bad – in fact he played pretty good for someone who claims he hadn’t played before.”
But Smith is well aware of the real reason why he is back in the east end of Glasgow – to try to inspire the Great Britain team he manages to a first Davis Cup final since 1978, when they were defeated by the United States. Like Celtic manager Ronny Deila, who also took part in yesterday’s challenge, Smith knows he has some tough decisions to make.
Deila must decide who to play in defence against Ajax on Thursday as Celtic seek to iron out the problems that lie behind their stuttering progress this season. Among those selection dilemmas faced by Smith, meanwhile, is who to play in the doubles rubber on Saturday. Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot are currently enjoying fine seasons on the doubles circuit, which might mean there is less pressure to play Andy Murray – as disappointing as that would be for the Glasgow crowd.
“It’s a brilliant situation to come into,” said Smith. “Jamie, after making Wimbledon and US Open finals, is definitely playing the best tennis of his life. There’s no doubt about that. But Dom Inglot won an ATP event just before getting to the semi-final of the US Open itself.
“Whatever combination we put on Saturday – Andy/Jamie, Jamie/Dom or even Dom/Andy – is a strong one for us.”
Smith also knows he has another major plus on his side – the home crowd. “If it’s anything like the last time, which was one of the best we’ve had as a team [v USA in March], it will be great,” he said. “Andy is playing in front of the biggest crowds, in the biggest stadiums in the world, but that was up there with anything in terms of noise level and excitement. When the option to come back to Glasgow became viable again, it was an easy decision.”
“Scotland doesn’t get to see a lot of tennis, especially when we have someone like Andy Murray – Jamie as well, but particularly Andy. In the last tie here, he hadn’t been back since he’d won Wimbledon, so it was a special moment. And on the Friday, when the team was presented to the crowd, the noise when he walked out was as loud as we’ve ever heard in tennis. Hopefully, we can have the same again. We are going to need it because it is going to be a tough tie and Friday is going to be important to get it going.
“The crowd is going to make a big difference. It can affect the Aussies as well, because they won’t be used to playing in an atmosphere like this.”