Scottish Daily Mail
This Davis Cup wild card feels like right move at the wrong time
I wouldn’t feel comfortable just going straight in for the Final
If it was considered unlikely that the outpost of Dunblane would one day produce Davis Cup champions for Great Britain, then Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, was even further off the radar.
Yet, tomorrow in Prague, a timetabled half-hour meeting of the International Tennis federation (ITf) may decide a match can be made. Aljaz Bedene, Slovenia native and British citizen, will plead his case in the company of a Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) lawyer.
If successful, a young man from the city on the banks of the Ljubljanica river will be eligible to join the British team that faces Belgium in Ghent in next week’s Davis Cup final. At which point it all gets rather awkward.
Bedene is inside the world’s top 50 right now, undoubtedly Britain’s second best tennis player after Andy Murray. He is also useful on clay, the surface the Belgians have picked to put their opponents at the greatest disadvantage.
He could be Britain’s secret weapon. But should we use it? Is this what Leon Smith, the captain, wants? What about the Murray brothers or Bedene himself? If he wins the day in Prague, there are huge calls to be made, and quickly.
No doubt there are those at the LTA privately hoping the decision is taken from their hands. If the ITf upholds its ruling that there can be no nationality changes in Davis Cup competition, the problem goes away.
And why should the ITf fail to endorse its rule book? Against this, on September 25, the ITf elected a new president, David Haggerty, plus nine new directors among a board of 13. They might not feel as strongly about a ruling that only dates back to January 1. It could go either way.
ITf legislation effective from the start of the year states that a player cannot represent a second Davis Cup country, even with a change of nationality. This means Bedene’s appearance for Slovenia in three dead rubbers between 2010 and 2012 trumps the ceremony last April that formally made him a British citizen.
He claims his paperwork was submitted long before January 1 and only delays in Home Office procedure meant he fell foul of the new ITf law. It is this plea he hopes the governing body will consider tomorrow.
Yet, for Great Britain’s tennis team, this is much bigger than mere procedural wrangling. There are ethical issues here, too, about the meaning and principles of international sport.
Bedene is now a British citizen, but the scheduling of his appeal no longer feels right. The gain for Britain could be enormous, and what once felt altruistic now appears opportunistic — the right move at the wrong time.
In mitigation, there is nothing plastic about Bedene’s commitment to his adopted country. He has lived here since 2008, has bought a house in Welwyn Garden City, pays his taxes here, trains at Gosling Sports Park and says he will remain in Britain when his tennis career is over.
‘It is very quiet,’ he said. ‘It is a nice place.’
Bedene has put down roots; he is certainly not passing through or flying a flag of convenience. It is not as if his path was blocked in Slovenia when he transferred, or he only seeks the advantage of British facilities.
Chris froome, British cyclist, has never lived in this country. Lewis Hamilton has been a tax exile since 2007. It could be argued that, in his way, Bedene is as British as either of them.
Even so, there would be discomfort attached to his selection. There are only four in a Davis Cup team and, while James Ward would still be chosen, the chances of him getting to play in any of the matches would be slim with Bedene available.
Andy Murray and Bedene would be the likely singles picks on friday and Sunday, Andy and Jamie Murray the Saturday’s doubles pairing. Ward would be a bystander; and Ward has been magnificent for his team up to here.
He may be ranked 160 to Bedene’s 46, but he defeated America’s John Isner, the World No11, to help Britain win a groupstage match last March. And, unlike Bedene, he is used to the atmosphere of Davis Cup tennis — a raucous world away from the genteel circuit. This explains why nobody around the Great Britain team is prepared to publicly commit to Bedene, as yet.
If Murray came out in support of his inclusion, only for the ITf to reject the appeal, there might be a difficult conversation with Ward later in the week. Even if his team-mate was philosophical about the issue, it would hardly be conducive to team spirit.
Bedene accepts this. He is a thoroughly decent chap and, in the build-up to his hearing, appears reluctant to see his inclusion as irresistible.
‘I would probably talk to all the other boys to see how they felt about me joining the team for the final,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t feel comfortable just going straight in.’
Murray could be his champion. He has been talking up Bedene’s talent of late, having chosen him as a practice partner on clay.
Having trodden the unlikely path from Dunblane to the pinnacle of his sport as Britain’s only post-War Grand Slam men’s singles winner, he is no doubt single-minded about his objective in Belgium.
This may be his one chance — Roger federer and Stanislas Wawrinka for Switzerland would make a formidable pairing next time — and he has given a lot to be here.
If Bedene represents Britain’s strongest option, Murray will advocate going with him and the unfortunate excluded would have to deal with it. Yet how does Smith, the captain, feel about breaking up the team he has marshalled so impressively; and how will the public react to a co-Slovenian triumph?
It is quite possible to support Bedene’s right to be British, while wishing for this team to finish what it started without him.
Up to this point, Bedene’s motives, and Britain’s, have been guilt-free. He came, fell in love with the country and wanted to be part of it. Britain, in turn, had little to gain from the alliance.
Bedene was a player around the top 100, better than what Britain had — bar Murray — but hardly a reason to break out the bunting. There was nothing in it for him, beyond a sense of belonging; and nothing for us, bar a player who might get knocked out in Wimbledon’s second round, rather than its first.
Now there is much to gain for both sides. Bedene could be a part of Britain’s first successful Davis Cup team since 1936. Hence the squirming.
Bedene seems a very civilised sort, dare we say, British. You can tell he is one of us at heart by how uncomfortable all this is making him feel. And that’s the nub of it; is our unease the clue that, deep down, we know it isn’t quite right?