Britain’s National Tennis Centre at Roehampton in south-west London may be no substitute for Wimbledon, but once upon a time a “Battle of the Brits” in men’s tennis could have been held in a phone-box or newspaper kiosk, such was the lack of contenders for the title. Indeed, for many decades (roughly between the mid-1970s and the emergence of Andy Murray in the mid-noughties), the only two British male players of note were the two men whose names grace the two groupings at Roehampton this week, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. Thankfully, 2020’s Battle of the Brits event has proved, if nothing else, that British men’s tennis finally has some genuine depth.
That much is evident by previewing the two semi-finals tomorrow, after Britain’s four best male singles players made it through the group stage this week reasonably comfortably. First, the current British No.1, Dan Evans, will play the man who he said earlier this year is the genuine British No.1, Andy Murray.
Murray, after all his injury woes in recent years, openly played down his chances of success at the start of the tournament, joking with TV interviewers that any self-respecting opponent should fancy their chances of beating someone “with a metal hip”. Nevertheless, he will surely have been disappointed to have lost to Kyle Edmund in their superb group-stage match. Edmund finally won 6-7 (2-7) 7-6 (7-5) 10-5, triumphing in a match tie-breaker that was actually the third tie-break of the two-set match. Such is Murray’s incomparable competitive instinct that he will not want to lose to a second compatriot in the same week, even if that man is one of the most improved male tennis players in the world.
Dan Evans is the man who, having just turned 30, seems to have had several careers in one: early promise followed by a bizarre decision to quit playing and take up coaching; a return to playing and a steady rise up the rankings until his 2017 drugs ban; and since the return from that drugs ban the immense improvement in his game and above all his mentality that has now seen him reach a career-high No. 28 in the world. Indeed, at the start of the year, before the Coronavirus crisis decimated professional tennis and so much else besides, it was arguable that only Dušan Lajović, Novak Djokovic’s right-hand man as Serbia won the inaugural ATP Cup in January, had progressed as much in the last 12 months.
Of course, the Coronavirus crisis halted any momentum that Evans might have had at the start of the year, but his return at Roehampton this week was further proof that the “bad boy” of British tennis might finally have become “Good Evans”, a focused, disciplined but none the less brilliant striker of a tennis ball. In his defeat of Cameron Norrie in their final group match, Evans showed almost his full repertoire of shots, combining power-hitting with sublime touch in a performance that showed just how far ahead he is of Norrie, Britain’s current No.3.
Despite that defeat, Norrie also progressed to the semi-finals, where he will face Britain’s No.2 and Andy Murray’s conqueror, Kyle Edmund. Since reaching the Australian Open semi-final at the start of 2018, Edmund seems to have endured several careers of his own, almost all of them heading in a downward trajectory, but in 2020 he finally seems to have pulled out of what some had feared was a career-threatening nose-dive. Against Murray, he was superb, demonstrating again that he has one of the most powerful forehands in men’s tennis (the proverbial “big weapon” that every top player is supposed to possess) but he also showed great mental fortitude to win two tie-breaks in quick succession against such a brilliant tie-break player as Murray, especially after he had lost the first set in just such a shoot-out (or rather serve-out).
The fourth member of what tentatively might be called Britain’s “Fab Four”, or at the very least Britain’s “Fairly Good Four”, is Cameron Norrie. After his own breakthrough performance against Spain in the Davis Cup in February 2018, barely a month after Edmund had reached the last four in Melbourne, Norrie made a steady if largely unspectacular rise up the rankings, breaking into the world’s top 50 in the first half of 2019 before falling back somewhat to his current ranking of No.77. Nevertheless, he remains an impressive all-round player, even if the suspicion remains that, unlike Murray, Evans and Edmund, he lacks the “big weapon” to really challenge at the top of the game.
So, whoever reaches the Final on Sunday (and the likelihood is that Edmund will beat Norrie to face either Evans or Murray), the real winner has been British men’s tennis, as the Battle of the Brits, the first UK national championship since 2002, has demonstrated that Andy Murray is no longer the only good British male tennis player, even if it remains true that he is the only British player likely to win a Major in the future. And that is without even considering the real strength of British men’s tennis, which is in doubles, with Jamie Murray, Joe Salisbury, Neal Skupski and the vastly experienced veteran Dom Inglot showing that Team GB no longer has to rely on a Murray brothers pairing in the biggest events.
Indeed, the only frustration about the current state of British men’s tennis is one of timing, in that the emergence, or rather re-emergence, of Evans and Edmund, along with the steady improvement of Norrie, has coincided with the inevitable decline, after all his injuries, of Andy Murray. In 2015, Murray virtually won the Davis Cup on his own, producing one of the all-time great “one-man team” performances in the tournament’s history. (Arguably, only Ivan Ljubičić for Croatia in 2005 had done as much to win the tournament for his country as Murray did in 2015.) Now, however, there would be no need for Britain to rely so completely on Murray, which is just as well, because these days it would surely be impossible for him to produce the remarkable succession of brilliant three-day performances that made his Davis Cup success in 2015 one of the highlights even of his stunning career.
With the announcement today that this year’s Davis and Fed Cup Finals have definitely been postponed until next year, and with the continuing uncertainty over the tennis calendar caused by the Coronavirus likely to put pressure on the staging of the ATP Cup at the start of next season, it is extremely unlikely now that Andy Murray will ever be able to play alongside Evans, Edmund and Norrie at something close to his very best in one of the two major team tournaments in tennis. That is a great shame, but the great hope for Britain is that, even without Murray in the future, its new strength in depth in men’s tennis will stand it in good stead.