QUEEN'S CLUB, London - Andy Murray did nearly all of the work in lifting Great Britain to their first Davis Cup semifinal since 1981. In a quarterfinal tie against France that began just a week after his Wimbledon semifinal loss, Murray won both his singles matches, plus the doubles with his brother, Jamie, spending nearly nine hours contesting matches on the Queen's Club Centre Court over three days.
If Murray can manage a similarly heavy workload over two more weekends, Great Britain could lift their first Davis Cup since 1936. That would rank among Murray's greatest achievements, alongside his 2012 Olympic gold medal and his two major titles.
Four years ago, Great Britain was in Group II, two rungs from the top level of Davis Cup. Now they are two ties from Davis Cup victory. The path looks navigable. The Brits host Australia in September. Win that tie, and GB would either host Argentina - fifth in the Davis Cup rankings, and the only top-eight nation remaining in the competition - or travel to Belgium in November. Murray is the No.3 player in the world. None of the other semifinalists has a Top 10 player. Australia also has suffered from feuding between their national tennis federation and their top-ranked player, Bernard Tomic, who was disinvited from this weekend's tie. Australia had to come back to win the last three matches against Kazakhstan.
Great Britain's opportunity is the product of hard work by Murray and his teammates, led by captain Leon Smith. It culminated on Sunday in Murray's second comeback win in two days, 4-6 7-6(5) 6-3 6-0 over Gilles Simon, cheered on by most of the Centre Court crowd on another sunny West London afternoon. Afterwards Murray held his head in his hands, spent physically and emotionally and looking forward to some hard-earned days off.
"What an effort," Smith told on-court interviewer Annabel Croft, joking that he was killing time to give his star a chance to recover for his own interview. "We're punching above our weight here," Murray told Croft. "It's been a long road back."
The British opportunity also reflects the Davis Cup's struggles to retain star power. Long gone are the days when the top male players made winning the international team competition their top goal for the season. Over the past two decades, stars often have opted out of ties.
Even compared to that recent history, this year has reached a new nadir in Davis Cup participation of top stars. Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and other Spanish players are - like Tomic - at odds with their national federation; without them, Spain played this year below the World Group level and will do so again next year, as well, after a loss to Russia this weekend. World No.2 Roger Federer and his Swiss teammate, No.4 Stan Wawrinka, didn't show up in March to defend their Cup win last year, and Switzerland promptly were ousted. Canada traveled to Belgium this weekend without their two best players. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic skipped Serbia's quarterfinal this weekend, which began five days after his Wimbledon win. Canada and Serbia both were knocked out by Saturday.
Davis Cup gets four weeks to itself in an otherwise packed, 11-month tennis calendar. When they play, stars enjoy the camaraderie, the opportunity to play for their country and the passionate crowds. Murray beamed as he celebrated with his teammates on court Sunday to a premature though rousing soundtrack of Queen's "We Are the Champions".
But the benefits often can't dwarf the downsides. The four weeks of competition often fall right after major tournaments end. The scheduling was particularly tough this weekend. Players have had little rest over the last few months during the clay and grass seasons, and the North American hard-court season begins in earnest in three weeks in Montreal.
The slippery Queen's Club courts didn't help; Simon fell twice on Sunday, the second time hurting his ankle and making the fourth set a formality. Afterwards he said it was the most slippery grass court he'd ever played on, and his captain, Arnaud Clement, called it "a bit dangerous".
The result is a competition this year that has featured a lot of Andy Murray, and not much other star power. Djokovic played one match in March. Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori each played two. Otherwise, Murray has been the only Top 10 singles talent in the World Group. Belgium's David Goffin is the only other Top 20 player left. France, with their four Top 20 players, might be the toughest opponents Great Britain will have to face. The median ranking of players in live rubbers in the quarterfinals this weekend was 65.5, meaning half the players had rankings above that and half below. That reflects a big decline in the talent from last year's quarterfinal - median ranking of 43.5 - which itself was the lowest ranked set of singles players in the Davis Cup quarterfinal round since at least 2004. The decline could persist through this year's final: Belgium and Great Britain, the semifinal hosts, each have only one player ranked in the Top 75.
Murray could have rested this week, then started preparing for his hard-court season, which will begin in Washington, D.C., in two weeks. Why, then, has he committed to the competition this year when so many of his rivals haven't? "Because I believe we can win and also because I love the team," he said in his postmatch press conference. He also loves the atmosphere. "You don't get that in any other event, so you have a lot of memories from the Davis Cup and that's one of the reasons why you're passionate to play."
Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Davis Cup, said in a statement that it is critical to schedule the competition in weeks when it won't be competing with tour events, even if they fall after Grand Slams. Ricci Bitti added: "There will always be occasions when top players have to miss ties, but this can allow new players to become heroes for their country."
"The diminution of Davis Cup star power doesn't diminish the competition's appeal at its best" Carl Bialik
The Davis Cup at its best has always made heroes out of journeymen who play their best tennis when wearing their countries' shirts, cheered on by more famous and wealthier teammates and thousands of other supporters. The diminution of Davis Cup star power doesn't diminish the competition's appeal at its best. And it wouldn't diminish British tennis fans' joy if Murray can carry Great Britain through two more tough weekends.
But the trend for Davis Cup participation is worrying. If the number of top players keeps falling, fan interest could fall accordingly. And if Murray makes his third U.S. Open final in September, he may not be able to produce another hero turn over three matches the following weekend.
"I don't know, to be honest," he said when asked if he could repeat his feat in September should he make a deep run in New York. He pointed out, though, that every match from the semifinal stage on will be vital. "I think I'd find a way."