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Doubles duo key to Davis Cup

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Jonathan Overend | 12:49 UK time, Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The horror of Vilnius - one of the more infamous British tennis graveyards - still haunts those of us who were there. But memories of that snowbound weekend in the sports hall of doom are thankfully fading as Britain rebuilds its Davis Cup reputation.

From plumbing the depths of the competition in 2010 with that defeat by Lithuania, a nation with only three professional players, Britain has steadily climbed the rungs of respectability with five wins in a row.

This weekend the team faces Belgium in Glasgow with the winners guaranteed a world group play-off in September. Heady days indeed.

Central to Britain's resurgence, albeit through lowly international divisions, has been an established doubles partnership, Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins, now regulars on the ATP World Tour and recent champions in Delray Beach.

They are improving all the time. I like their bounce, energy and touchy-feely camaraderie. They are aiming to represent Britain at the Olympics and possibly qualify for the World Tour Finals at the end of the year.

And at a time when many of the established international doubles stars of the last decade are surely nearing the end of the careers - Knowles, Nestor, Mirnyi, Paes, Zimonjic - the British pair, both 27, sense an opportunity to shoot for honours.

The cut for entries to London 2012 is likely to be very close to their combined ranking. Photo: Getty

"The top 10 is what we're aiming for," says Fleming. "As time goes on guys are going to get older and stop playing but we're not looking at it like that. We're trying to move up while they're still playing and we've had some wins which show we're capable of doing that."

But opposition on the ATP doubles tour can take many forms. At the recent event in Indian Wells, most of the top ten singles players were in the draw and Fleming and Hutchins lost a close first match to fellow Brits Andy and Jamie Murray.

"A couple of friends messaged me saying it must be annoying when these guys play," says Fleming, a graduate of Stirling University. "But I'm very much for it even though it makes it tougher for us to progress."

"It draws crowds, draws attention to doubles and the standard goes up" adds Hutchins, son of former GB player and coach Paul. "It's great for us to go head to head with them and see where we're at."

And of course there are the Olympics to look forward to. They hope. The cut for entries is likely to be perilously close to their combined ranking.

"We can only go on the ranking cut offs for the last two Olympics," says Hutchins. "And judging by that, we'd be in right now."

"You're allowed two teams per country [in a 32-team draw] and presuming Andy and Jamie play, we are right now the second team. We have to work very hard to defend the ranking points we made last year and be there on form and merit."

Just back from a long tour of the United States, Fleming and Hutchins will start favourites to win the doubles rubber on Saturday. Belgium - with their experienced singles players Olivier Rochus and Steve Darcis - are expected to edge the overall tie.

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In the Tim Henman/Greg Rusedski days, when GB bounced between World Group first round and the play-offs, successive captains in David Lloyd and Roger Taylor cried out for a specialist doubles team. Or at least one other, to take some of the heat off the main men.

After they retired, the theory was different. Captains Jeremy Bates and John Lloyd preferred the option of two further singles players to compete for the second slot alongside Andy Murray.

Now, with Murray's involvement uncertain (although he has already committed to the next tie if it's a World Group play-off), Fleming and Hutchins are the first names on current captain Leon Smith's team sheet.

This is an important match at the end of an embarrassing week for the LTA when the Sport England "Active People Survey" reported a sharp drop in adult participation figures.

It's a major blow to those who have spent years claiming the game is growing in the UK and, with the LTA's funding cut as a result, a sharp reminder that no amount of spin or fancy figures can kid those who take a detached view.

Perhaps now the LTA will fully embrace the Tennis For Free scheme which has done superb work for years but has constantly found itself banging its charitable head against the gleaming Roehampton doors.

Campaigner Tony Hawks emails me today. Backed by politicians and Sport England, he says he plans to ask the LTA for funding to launch 88 Tennis For Free sites over four years. He fears they will turn this down.

If people turn up in Glasgow this weekend and get inspired by the likes of Fleming and Hutchins, they need to be able to get a taste for tennis at low cost, if possible no cost.

This is possible, if you go looking for it, but until the scheme is rolled out across the UK - with the LTA's backing and funding - the required participation increase to make us a serious tennis nation will surely never materialise.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Good to see Fleming & Hutchins doing so well & there are others who could fill in such as Jamie Murray, Jonny Marray, Ken Skupski. But without Andy Murray we have no chance of beating Belgium, clearly a step up from Slovakia. Dan Evans performed miracles in the last tie but has hardly won a match since. Now the out of form James Ward is also out. Still, our juniors rae making progress & maybe in 2 years 1 of them will be able to give Andy singles support & we will be back in the world group with a full team.

  • Comment number 2.

    Tennis is still not open to everyone - many kids will never pick up a tennis racket in earnest in their formative years. Tennis for free sounds like a good idea at least we will be selecting our players from a wider gene pool rather than the rather limited field we currently have available.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well, we all saw it coming. The Scot putting Scotland and himself before GB. He should be banned from the Olympics. Nobody wants you Murray. Back to Asian zone obscurity thanks to you.

  • Comment number 4.

    Far Be It From Me

    Why shouldn't Andy. He's played games when injured in the Davis Cup. The team have done well without him so I can see where he's coming from.

    On the Scottish issue. Commentators are the first to call him British when he wins and Scottish when he loses.
    Also we'll have Fleming back then and team him up with Jamie Murray and with Jos Rae in mixed, also Elena from the Fed Cup team. Also we'll take Judy and Leon as our captains

    Scotland contributes so much to British tennis so be careful what you wish for.

  • Comment number 5.

    Far Be It From Me
    "Nobody wants you Murray. Back to Asian zone obscurity thanks to you". Hmm

  • Comment number 6.

    Obviously I meant that had he put his heart into it we would have wanted him. As it is, we don't, here or at the Olympics, and I hope he gets zero support at Wimbledon.

 

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