Leon Smith is on the brink of making history with his Great Bri­tain team in the World Cup of ten­nis

The Herald - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STE­WART FISHER

‘Av­er­age’ as a player but his pas­sion for coach­ing has GB on verge of Davis Cup

He ac­quired the wreck­age of the John Lloyd era and his first tie was a rel­e­ga­tion play-off with Tur­key with the loser des­tined to drop to the Davis Cup fourth tier , a hu­mil­i­a­tion from which na­tions may not re­turn

BANG av­er­age is the phrase Leon Smith uses to de­scribe his abil­i­ties as a ten­nis player. Thank­fully, for the sake of Bri­tish ten­nis, he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly out­stand­ing when it came to his stud­ies ei­ther.

It was a com­bi­na­tion of th­ese two de­mer­its which first led to Smith knock­ing on the door of then Scot­tish na­tional coach Judy Mur­ray shortly be­fore the turn of the mil­len­nium, set­ting in mo­tion a chain of events which sees the Glaswe­gian lead a Great Bri­tain team into this week­end’s Davis Cup fi­nal as strong favourites to land their first ti­tle in the world cup of team ten­nis since 1936. His jour­ney from such hum­ble beginnings is the per­fect metaphor for the un­likely rise of his team since he took over the cap­taincy from John Lloyd in 2010.

“I was bang av­er­age as a player,” said Smith. “I lived across from a ten­nis club, I played for Scot­land many times, I played in Bri­tish na­tional cham­pi­onships. It’s not like I didn’t play, I just wasn’t that great.

“But that is why, when I left school at 17-18, and wasn’t go­ing to col­lege or univer­sity, it was coach­ing, be­cause ob­vi­ously I wasn’t go­ing to make any money play­ing,” he added. “I didn’t have many op­tions. The Scot­tish Highers or A-lev­els were non-ex­is­tent so univer­sity wasn’t fea­si­ble. I loved coach­ing, though. Even now if I am asked to do a clinic for any of our spon­sors or char­i­ties I love get­ting on court with the younger ones and help­ing. For me next week, if I was asked to go and be a club coach again, I could do it. I enjoy it a lot. It doesn’t mat­ter what level.”

That meet­ing with Mrs Mur­ray, as Smith says, was “where the jour­ney started”. There then fol­lowed an ap­pren­tice­ship of sorts, work­ing in change­able con­di­tions on out­door courts on the West of Scot­land, “sweep­ing snow off the courts and that sort of thing”, while also hit­ting with a “few good Scot­tish ju­niors be­cause I could still hit a ball pretty well”.

Amongst th­ese were, of course, Andy and Jamie Mur­ray. “They were nor­mally get­ting the bet­ter of me,” he re­called, “be­cause it was pretty easy to play against me, and she [Judy] had the tac­tics sorted. I saw the boys from a young age, they were al­ways traips­ing around. And that is how, four years into that coach­ing jour­ney, I got an op­por­tu­nity to go and work with Andy and oth­ers. You need doors to open and you need to com­mit your­self to the job and I did com­mit my­self to that job.”

While he could also rely on the pa­tron­age of the fu­ture world No.2 when it came to the sug­ges­tion he would also be per­fect for the Davis Cup cap­taincy, he couldn’t au­to­mat­i­cally count on his avail­abil­ity. In­deed, it took a while for Smith even to be per­suaded that ac­cept­ing the po­si­tion was in his best in­ter­ests, in a sit­u­a­tion where he was re­garded as a left-field can­di­date, ill-qual­i­fied com­pared to more high pro­file fig­ures like Greg Rused­ski.

The sit­u­a­tion sur­round­ing the team wasn’t ex­actly aus­pi­cious ei­ther. He ac­quired the wreck­age of the John Lloyd era – the English­man had fallen out with Andy over his non-avail­abil­ity for ties, with even Jamie giv­ing his tup­pence worth – and his first tie was a rel­e­ga­tion play-off with Tur­key with the loser des­tined to drop to the fourth tier of Davis Cup play, a hu­mil­i­a­tion from which na­tions don’t al­ways re­turn. As it was, Jamie Baker, James Ward and Colin Flem­ing all con­trib­uted to a 5-0 white­wash against a Tur­key team in­clud­ing a player, Marsel Il­han, who ended that year as world No.77.

“I was sur­prised to get this po­si­tion – of course I was – as there was a whole raft of for­mer play­ers, Bri­tish play­ers, and coaches, who would have had a much, much stronger CV than me,” says Smith. “It took a while for me to de­cide whether to do it or not. I would have said it went as far as me say­ing no the first time I was asked and then hav­ing fur­ther chats with them. But once I did, you go in, make a plan of how you want to go on this jour­ney with the play­ers, how you want to pre­pare the team, and run the team, and most of the things I started back in 2010 at that glam­orous Tur­key tie have ac­tu­ally stayed. They have just be­come a bit more well-oiled along the way.”

Thir­teen ties later, with only two of them losses – one to Italy in Naples in April 2014, and one to none other than Bel­gium at Brae­head in 2012 – and Great Bri­tain stand on the verge of their first Davis Cup ti­tle for 79 years. Their progress has sur­passed even Smith’s ini­tial expectations. “At the start of that week against Tur­key I was try­ing to be so or­gan­ised, even though I was a com­plete rookie at the time,” he said. “I re­mem­ber writ­ing some­thing on the flip chart be­fore ad­dress­ing the play­ers that we were go­ing to be ‘a well pre­pared team on a jour­ney back to the World Group’. Back then it was about try­ing to es­tab­lish that we were go­ing to pre­pare very well and if I went too far with the prepa­ra­tion then so be it.”

Vic­tory against Slo­vakia was im­por­tant for gath­er­ing mo­men­tum, com­ing back from two-love down against Rus­sia in Coven­try was a huge mo­ment, and so too was be­ing able to wel­come Andy Mur­ray back into the fold for the 4-1 World Group play-off win against Croa­tia in Umag. Louis Cayer’s work in the dou­bles has been an­other cor­ner­stone. “There is a group of staff that have been on that jour­ney from the start which is really nice,” said Smith. “A few have come and gone for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but the main­stay is gen­er­ally the same. Some ob­servers will say, ‘Oh you’ve got far too big a sup­port team – it is mas­sive’. But I was not ex­actly break­ing the bank. Th­ese are main­stay Bri­tish coaches who would do it for free.”

If that group has be­come like a sec­ond fam­ily to Smith, his real one – he has a wife and three chil­dren – will also be over in Ghent for the tie too. “The whole clan is com­ing out,” says Smith. “It will mean a couple of days off school so the kids are happy ... but the pay­back is that I have to do a talk to the se­nior school and pri­mary school when I come back.”

Pic­ture: Getty

CLOSE: Andy Mur­ray em­braces cap­tain Leon Smith dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion

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