Captain Leon Smith has charted a remarkable journey with his British side – from the brink of world tennis’s lowest tier to a place in the Davis Cup final for the first time in 37 years. And team unity has been at the heart of his success
If a week is a long time in politics, then five and a half years must seem like a lifetime in tennis. And for Leon Smith, it must feel as if it was in another lifetime that he was appointed as ritain’s Davis Cup captain.
Back in April, 2010, Britain were standing with their toes on the edge of the Davis Cup cliff. To lose to Turkey in their next match would mean dropping down into Euro-Africa zone, group III, the lowest rung of the competition. And having lost to Lithuania four months earlier, everyone was happily kicking British tennis. A government inquiry was launched into the miserable state of the system, the previous captain, John Lloyd, was ushered out of his job and the hunt was on for a saviour to ride to the rescue and salvage the LTA’s reputation and the country’s Davis Cup team.
Enter, stage right, Leon Smith. At the time, he was known as a protégé of Judy Murray and a promising young coach who had once worked with Andy Murray. Other than that, there was not much to report. But now, 13 Davis cup ties later (11 wins and two losses), Smith is about to lead his team into Britain’s first Davis Cup final in 37 years. It has been some journey since that first tie against Turkey in Eastbourne (which, incidentally, Britain won at a canter 5-0).
“There is a group of staff that have been on that journey from the start which is really nice,” Smith said.
“A few have come and gone for different reasons, but the mainstay is generally the same. A lot of observers will still say, ‘Oh you’ve got far too big a support team – it is massive’. But I was not exactly breaking the bank with the people I have brought in.
“These are mainstay British coaches who would do it for free, 100 per cent. They care about the team, they care about the players and they care about British tennis. That has been a big part of it as well and it has been really pleasing that everybody has stayed right through the journey.”
And that is the essence of Britain’s success – team unity. Everyone, from the stringer, Roger Dalton, to the star, Andy Murray, has a part to play and each part is as important as the other. They play together, they win together and they lose together. And Smith has been the man who has knitted that team together.
When he was appointed, the general opinion was that Smith was there only to get Murray to play regularly. Murray had made it clear that he would only be a permanent fixture when the rest of the team had proved that they could compete at the top level. As the ties racked up and Britain gathered momentum, Smith pulled remarkable wins out of the likes of James Ward and Dan Evans and, as their confidence grew, so Smith’s ambitions became greater: in winning form and with Murray on board, winning the trophy was now possible. But it was all so different in the beginning.
“I was trying to be so organised,” Smith said of his early days. “I was a complete rookie at the time, trying to make sure everything is in place because I’m not basing it on my playing experience. I remember writing something on the flipchart before addressing players for the first time that we were going to be ‘a well prepared team on a journey back to the World Group’ was the slogan I wrote up on the board. We used that until it became irrelevant when we got to the World Group and then we had to think about how we win the competition.”
Smith has always loved his sport. Leaving school without much in way of qualifications, university was out of the question and the life of a tennis pro was beyond him. But tennis was his passion so he set out on the coaching path.
“I was bang average as a player,” he said. “I didn’t play on the pro tour, but it is not like I didn’t play tennis. I lived across from a tennis club. That was my life. I played for Scotland many times, I played in British national championships. It is not like I didn’t play, I just wasn’t that great.
“That’s why, when I left school at 17, 18, and wasn’t going to college or university, it was coaching, because I obviously wasn’t going to make any money playing. It took a few years of doing outdoor, West of Scotland, Oban, outdoor coaching through beautiful, windy weather, sweeping snow off the courts and that kind of thing, while hitting with a few good, Scottish juniors – because I could still hit a ball pretty well. As everyone knows, that is how I got an opportunity to go and work with Andy and others, four years into that coaching journey.”
Smith knew of Judy and her coaching expertise long before he met her sons. Judy was often coaching Smith’s opponents in the national competitions – and coaching them to beat him – and he saw Andy and Jamie travelling with their mum. Then, when Andy was around 11 years old, he started hitting with the now world No 2.
“That opportunity with Andy is how the journey started,” Smith said. “You need doors to open and you need to commit yourself to the job and I did commit myself to that job. I ended travelling a lot with him, forging a good relationship, then other players in Scotland that I worked with started to do things internationally and it went on from there. I did a stint with the LTA before getting this position.”
With the Murray brothers in the team, anything is possible. But it is the way that Smith has managed to get everyone else in the squad to punch above their weight that has got them this far. In 2012, Britain beat Slovakia, Dan Evans winning both his singles matches and Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins getting the doubles win. Evans was conceding 140 rankings places to Martin Klizan when he won the fifth and deciding rubber – this was heroic stuff from Smith’s band of brothers.
Smith said: “That Slovakia tie was like: ‘Oh, ok, this is working. The players are bang into it, they are performing’.
“Whatever coaching team you are in and whoever is leading the team, you have to be judged on whether you are beating the players around you and higher-ranked players.
“If you are consistently beating higher-ranked players, something is working.”
True to his word, as soon as the team got within touching distance of the World Group – a play-off tie against Croatia in 2013 – Murray was back in harness and the rest, as they say, is history.
The father of three young children (he has bagged a couple of days off school for them all to be here this weekend in return for giving a couple of talks at their schools next week), Smith has had to make his sacrifices over the years.
His Davis Cup team may be winning but his kids just want to know when he is coming home.
“That is part of the job,” he said. “It’s something you get accustomed to. I have got an eight, six and two-year-old and they are used to saying: ‘How many sleeps are you away for now, Daddy?’
“It is fine when you can say five – five is unbelievable. But I have to tell them ‘25’ or ‘30’. For people who don’t work in our industry, people who live in my street, who work for Standard Life, they think it is mental. They are cutting my grass. Everybody is helping with the chores because I am away from the street. But it is part and parcel of the job and you get used to it. Hopefully it will all be worth it come Sunday night.”
But if Smith leads Britain to victory this weekend, he will happily cut his own grass forever more.