Led by local hero Andy Murray, Great Britain have reached Davis Cup semi-finals for first time in 34 years. They’ll next face Australia, who beat Kazakhstan, in September.
Read this interview of Leon Smith, in which he tells how he became team GB Davis Cup captain, and his years as Andy Murray’s coach:
Interview by l’Equipe, July 2015, translation by Tennis Buzz:
Q: Who are you Leon Smith, what is your background?
My background is not conventional, it’s not the story that everyone knows, the former good player who becomes coach. I was a very average player in Scotland. I still live in Scotland, Edinburgh. I played at British level in juniors (he never played on any professional circuit) but I soon realized that I won’t make it. I went back to school. I finished my studies. Without a degree, I must admit (laughs). And so, I started coaching, at 17.
Q: At 17? But it’s too young…
I started as a coach club, then regional coach. At that time I was in Glasgow, Scotland. Rain, cold, snow, and so on. Great years (laughs). I cleaned the courts myself, I had to earn money. Then, fortunately, I coached some of the best Scottish juniors. I was friends with Judy Murray, and one day, when I was about twenty one, she asked
“Would you like to go to Stirling to hit with my son. He is 11.”
Judy was national coach in Scotland at the time. She thought her son needed someone else than Mom to train him. Someone to accompany him during tournaments. This son was Andy.
So you were one of the first coaches of Andy Murray?
Yes, from age 12 to 17. Even when he left for Spain, for the Sanchez Casal Academy, I was still working with him. We stopped just after his victory at the US Open juniors (in 2004). I was with him when he won the Orange Bowl (12 years and under, in 1999). This was my first trip with him; in Miami, during four weeks, we learned to know each other. I was his coach but I was also doing his laundry, I washed his socks, I prepared his meals… After Andy, I did not do anything for a few months before accepting my first job at the LTA (the British Federation). I had to supervise coaches and players in Scotland. And I had the responsibility of the British under 14. Then I worked with juniors. It was great because in 2005-2006, there were people like Paul Annacone (former coach among others of Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, Roger Federer…) working for the LTA. I spent a lot of time with Paul and learned a lot.
But how did you become Davis Cup captain?
In 2010, John Lloyd had just finished his term as captain. And then I got a phone call from one of the LTA bosses.
“Would you be the next captain?” They told me. “Hmm, me?”, I replied. It seemed super weird and I hung up, saying, “No thank you. You should find someone else.”
I even gave them a list of names. But then insisted (laughs). I accepted, knowing people would cringe. I would be criticized for months. I was ready for that.
Have you been criticized as you expected it?
Yes. The first two weeks, it’s been difficult. I remember one day I was driving and my father called to ask me: “Are you okay? Do you feel good?” As I did not understand why he asked me this, he said, “You, you did not read the papers. You better take a look.” I did. And it was embarassing.
“How could they get this guy? He has never coached at a high level, never played at a high level.”
But they were right! It was up to me to show what I was capable of. I started travelling. I went everywhere with Andy of course, but also on the Challenger tour with James Ward and Daniel Evans, where I served as their coach because they had no money to pay one. I took young coaches with me and we all grew up together.
In 2010, you start against Turkey
We were in Third Division. No matter against which team you win, you win and things take shape. We beat Turkey, Tunisia, Luxembourg and Hungary to reach Division Two. In 2012, we missed the lift to the World Group against Belgium, but not the following year against the Russians, without Andy. Suddenly people took us seriously. When we played Tunisia in Bolton in 2010, there was no TV broadcast of the tie. To debrief the match I had one amateur video. Today, interest in the Davis Cup is undeniable.
The involvment of Andy Murray had to play a lot…
Of course, he is really concerned. His dedication drives the other players but also the entire nation. We are a united team. We dine quite often together, we were almost all at Andy’s wedding (in April). He is also the first to encourage his teammates. At Roland Garros he came in the stands to support Kyle Edmund in the qualifyings and in the first round.
The Murray brothers fought back from a set down to beat Nicolas Mahut and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 4-6 6-3 7-6 6-1. It was another strange choice by French Davis Cup captain Arnaud Clément to select Mahut and Tsonga who had never played together before, whereas Tsonga and Gasquet are undefeated in Davis Cup. Or why not select Herbert and Mahut who play regularly on the tour together and were finalists at the Australian Open earlier in the year.
“To go out there, play with your brother for your country and to have Leon on the bench who has been a big part of our tennis careers from a young age, it was really special. It was a magic day. Hopefully it puts us in a good position for tomorrow and we will do our best to try to get to three points.”
Andy Murray is expected to win over Gilles Simon (or Richard Gasquet?) and propel Great Britain into the Davis Cup semifinals for the first time in 34 years.
Following James Ward loss to Gilles Simon earlier in the day, this match was a must-win for Andy Murray.
For whatever reason French Davis Cup captain Arnaud Clément decided to sit recent Wimbledon semifinalist Richard Gasquet for day 1, and after two tight sets, Murray beat Tsonga quite comfortably 7-5 7-6(10) 6-2 and drew level with France at 1-1.
The crowd was great, especially at the important moments. I was happy with the job that I did today. I don’t feel like I played amazing, but I played some good shots at important times
Saturday’s doubles rubber will be crucial: Dominic Inglot and Jamie Murray will take on Richard Gasquet and Nicolas Mahut.
Andy Murray and his wife, Kim, have launched a charity raffle to win a tennis ball signed by Murray and the late tennis legend Fred Perry:
“Several years ago we were handed a very special package. A tube of white tennis balls that had been signed by the late Fred Perry, accompanied by a note from their owner, Gail Sargent.
Gail was a lifelong tennis player and had met Fred on his visit to Maresfield Tennis Club in 1994. Over a decade later she watched a young Andy Murray practising at a different tennis club, and was so impressed with his potential that she decided to gift him with the signed balls for him to do with what he saw fit. Gail was battling ovarian cancer, and sadly passed away in 2010.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2013, and after the ghost of Fred Perry had been extinguished on Centre Court at Wimbledon, he somehow resurfaced in our home as we stumbled across Gail’s parcel that had been tucked away, waiting patiently. Instantly Andy signed all three of the white balls and we realised that we had captured something unique.
The tennis world and beyond has been rocked in recent years by the tragic loss of Elena Baltacha, and coupled with Ross Hutchins’ battle against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma we are reminded that not one of us is immune to this horrible disease. So many charities work tirelessly to help those affected by all forms of cancer.
We have decided to raffle one of the signed tennis balls in Gail’s memory, with the entire proceeds donated to the hospice that cared for her in accordance with the wishes of her husband, Richard.
St. Peter & St. James hospice in Sussex has been providing specialist care for patients for nearly 40 years, and is largely dependent on the generosity of the local community in order to fund its services. The hospice provides support free of charge to patients and their families, helping them to cope during illness and upon bereavement. This year they need to raise more than £2.6million through fundraising, which is £7,200 every single day.
A second ball will be displayed at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum from 23 June. Visit Wimbledon.com/Museum to find out how to visit. The third ball will remain with us.
We hope that this raffle can raise much needed funds for the hospice and enables them to continue the wonderful work that they do.
The draw takes place on 12th July and you can enter up until midnight on 10th July 2015.
Thanks for your participation
Andy & Kimberly Murray”
Enter the raffle at: www.raffleplayer.com/andymurray
Interview by l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz
Q: Do you remember the first time you met Andy Murray?
It was during a Davis Cup tie in 2004, we were playing against Luxembourg. He had a knee injury, but he was there as a drawer of water. He was only 16 years old but he looked and listened everything, he was very interested in what was happening in training. He immersed himself in the atmosphere.
Q: And the first time you played him?
It was in La Manga, Spain, where we were training before a Davis Cup tie. Even though he was still very young and we were playing at a different level than his own, he had time, he was not under pressure and we knew then that he was going to be really good.
Q: You were one of his early role models, was he intimidated?
He had seen me play a lot and he was probably surprised how relaxed I was and how I liked to have fun off the court. We got along well, we made jokes, we played backgammon during rain interruptions. We had many things in common, and especially we both knew he was about to take over as British number one.
Q: He says you’ve been like a big brother for him, did you feel some kind of responsability towards him?
It was not really a responsibility, but I liked him. I thought that with my experience there were some areas in which I could help. When I arrived on the circuit, I trained a lot with Jeremy Bates, who was British No 1 at the time. Just to see him and be around him helped me to break barriers, to be accepted on the circuit. We trained a bit together, we went out to dinner and we talked about many different things.
Q: When you’re the British number one, you’re always on the spotlight. Which advice did you give him?
It was more related to life on the circuit, how to handle different aspects such as the media, sponsors, practices. On this stuff, the ball was always in his camp. When you’re British No. 1, you’re always on the spotlight, a lot of people want to give their opinion. In fact, I did not want to give him more reviews. I just wanted to give him some advices only when he asked me to.
Q: Do you remember the first official match you played against each other?
He beat me, but it should have been much easier for him that day (smile). It was the first round of the Basel tournament in 2005. He ended up beating me 7-6 in the third set. It was the kind of player I did not like playing. When I gave him a possibility, he was very good to pass me or force me to make a low volley and then pick me on the second ball with a great lob. I still try to remind him that I beat him in the last game we played together in 2006 in Bangkok (smile).
Q: How would you describe his personality?
He has a very dry sense of humor. He is stubborn. And he is honest.
Q: Like you before him, Andy has to face huge media and public pressure as British number one. Did you advise him on this subject too?
When he was young and began to attract media attention, I told him not to read everything that was written in the press and focus on the work he has to do. And to be honest, he did not (laughs). For a long time, he read what people wrote about him and he was influenced by it. That’s not a problem when you are on the rise and they write nice things. But when things start to go wrong, there are criticisms and he was frustrated. Sometimes he probably tried to fight against that. But it’s a learning process. Today he is much more mature, he understands how things work, he has the experience and manages it all very well.
Q: Why is it so hard to be the British No. 1?
There’s sometimes a disproportionate amount of attention. As Wimbledon is the largest and the world’s best tournament there is a lot of interest in the sport in the country, but we have very few good players. That’s the advantage you have in France, there is more depth while here there is huge attention on one player. It was me during my career, and today it’s Andy. It takes time getting used to it.
Q: How did it materialize at your time?
I realized it soon enough. It’s probably when I was disqualified at Wimbledon in 1995. I was the first player in 125 years to be disqualified at Wimbledon. And it was a very fast learning. I got destroyed by the media and I realized that I needed to have good results to make sure that people would not remember me just for that. I also realized that I had to get control of things that I could control. And everything that was said in the press, on TV, I could not control it. I could not help it, and from that day I very rarely read the newspapers.
Q: At one point in his career, when he could not win Grand Slam tournaments, Andy Murray was labeled as a loser, like you…
He did not mean to lose four Grand Slam finals in a row, but when we look at it closer, he lost against Federer and Djokovic, two of the best players of all time. And this 28-day period between the final of Wimbledon 2012 where he lost against Federer and showed so much emotion and winning the London Olympics on the same court against the same opponent, it was a turning point in his relationship with the British public. They really understood what it meant to him and how hard he worked.
Q: What was the role of Ivan Lendl to help him take that step?
Ivan played a huge role in Andy’s development of Andy and his success, and I believe that the symmetry between their careers was incredible. Lendl lost four Grand Slam finals before winning one and Andy was in the same boat. Lendl helped him keep believing he could win these big tournaments.
Q: You were here, in the commentary box, when he won in 2013
The expectation around the match was so huge, it was the seventh day of the seventh month, 77 years after Fred Perry last won… The excitement was huge and when the match took place, the seven first games lasted incredibly long time, in stifling heat. The first set was crucial. Andy never gave up, his tenacity and performance were absolutely incredible.
Q: How did you feel during this famous last game, when he served for the match?
Andy served from the side which was right outside our box. When he was 15-0, we said one done, just three more points, back to simple things. Then it was 30-0 and 40-0, he has three match points, it will be the right time! But this game kept going for another 10 or 12 minutes. The pressure, nervousness there was everywhere was unbearable.
Q: Andy Murray has a very complete game. Which are his strengths in your opinion?
He has many. His groundstrokes are fantastic. His athletic abilities are sometimes underestimated, the way he moves, his anticipation, the way he plays the game. I think the variety of his game is another strong point. He is able to change the pace a lot. He uses well his backhand slice. He is very comfortable at the net. His play at the net is underestimated. Above all, he is able to change the game in terms of style according to the situation and it is very rare. When you have only one style of play, it is easier to work on it and continue to improve your game, but it also makes you a bit limited. He has different aspects, more variety. It took him a little longer to understand his assets and use them, but nowadays we see the best of Andy Murray.
Q: And his weaknesses?
Fortunately, he still has plenty of them. When he plays badly, his first serve percentage decreases and his second serve is a bit vulnerable. The service is a crucial aspect, and that’s something he’s working on a lot. From the baseline, when he dictates play and he is aggressive, that is where he is at his best. When he gets on the defensive, he reacts, steps back and his opponent dictates the game, he must run and is struggling. He must find the balance between attack and defense, and recently he has found it.
Q: Does the Big Four still exist?
For me, yes, no doubt. Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic rankings inside the top 4 change, but when we look at how they dominated the biggest tournaments, all the Grand Slam semifinals they played, the number of Grand Slams and Masters 1000 won, they are still the players to beat. Djokovic is the head of this group today.
Q: You were one of the last serve and volley players. What do you think about the state of net play in today’s tennis?
There are no serve and volley players anymore, it’s sad but that’s the way the game has evolved. On hard courts, grass or indoor, the surfaces are slower, the conditions generally are slower. It is also about the way the players move. Returns of serve are better, faster and stronger, which reduce the opportunities to come to the net. If you come to the net today you must be even more effective than before. It is reflected in the way the players have changed at the junior level. Less coaches how to volley well. Many players today don’t have the correct grip position.
Q: Can you give us your top 5 of best players at the net?
Looking at the Top 100, I have trouble answering the question “who is the best volley player?” Some players volley quite well like Andy Murray, Feliciano Lopez and Radek Stepanek. But none of these players would be back in the Top 20 or Top 30 of best volley players some years ago. Will it come back? I doubt it.
Photo: Henman and Murray, 2013, Getty images