Tough decisions made in the Davis Cup reveal Leon Smith’s leadership qualities

Davis CupWhen Great Britain defeated France in the quarter finals of the Davis Cup in July 2015, the media headlines extolled the brilliant series of victories by Andy Murray. The leadership qualities displayed by non-playing captain Leon Smith should also be acknowledged

The Davis Cup is the most prestigious of international tennis competitions. It is held annually on a knockout basis with divisions, the higher of which is the World group. GB has not won the cup since 1936, another unenviable statistic for British tennis. Even reaching the quarter finals in 2015 is regarded a success for the team and its outstanding player Andy Murray.

Most Davis Cup captains were previously successful players themselves. Smith is unusual in not having played professionally at a high level.

The Cup format

Davis Cup teams are made up of four players selected from a larger squad. The non -playing captain plays a major role in selection. During matches he is also active in offering players psychological and maybe tactical advice during the ties.

France held an overall ranking superiority over GB. Although Andy Murray was the strongest player in either team, all four of the players for France outranked the other GB players.

On day one there are two rubbers. These are the singles, traditionally in which the strongest singles player of each team takes on the second strongest. Day two has one rubber, of doubles specialists. On day three there are two ‘reverse’ singles, one which involves the top players, and the second involves the second strongest players.

The captain has the right to substitute players from the squad, for example by playing a singles player in the doubles pair

The design involves selecting strong singles players, but history shows the importance of winning the doubles match, so that a team may risk weakening its singles players to increase chances in the doubles.

The design often forces difficult choices on the captains. Decisions require knowledge of player match-ups, physical condition, psychology, strategy and even some game-theory.

For the first day, GB had chosen Andy Murray, the standout player, plus James Ward who was expected to fight hard was likely to be beaten by at least one of the more highly ranked French players.

The other two players selected were doubles specialists Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot, neither of whom had any realistic chances of winning a singles rubber.

After day one

After day one, the score from the two singles ties stood at one rubber each. Murray had duly won the singles, as expected, but only after a tough rubber against the strong French player Jo Wilfed Tsonga. Ward, also unsurprisingly lost against another strong player, Giles Simon.

The French team had rested Richard Gasquet, another equally strong singles player to call on for the final singles rubber on the third day. Furthermore, as substitutions were permitted, they could play Tsonga and Nicolas Mahut in the doubles, resting Simon for Day three.

Leon Smith had fewer options. The doubles specialists, Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot would have a chance against the French team. This would have rested Murray. Inglot was recovering from injury.

The critical decision

Leon Smith decided to select Murray to play in all three rubbers over three days. This involved not using Inglot at all, and risking fatigue of GB’s top player on the third day when the tie would probably be in the balance, even if the new doubles pairing of the Murray brothers paid off.

The gamble

The Murray brothers won against the talented French pair of Tsonga and Mahut. The second day ended with GB needing a win on the third day. Andy Murray had to beat his opponent or France would probably win with a rested and stronger player against James Ward in the ‘reverse’ singles.

Murray was recovering from a Wimbledon fortnight that had left him physically and emotionally drained. His singles match on the previous day against Jo Wilfed Tsonga had also taken its toll. Whether out of fatigue or doubles rustiness, Andy Murray struggled at first, but the GB pair won. But at what cost. Murray still had to play the formidable and rested Giles Simon.

As the match developed, it became clear that Murray was in serious physical trouble. Simon grew in confidence. Murray, stumbling, gasping for breath, was close to losing. Then dramatically he found a last burst of energy. The BBC reporter Russell Fuller noted

“A set and a break down, Murray sank to his knees in exhaustion at the end of a 35-stroke rally that had once again gone Simon’s way. “France’s number one looked in control, and Murray was showing the wear and tear of a man playing for the third time this weekend.”Murray has produced improbable escapes before, but this was one of the bravest victories of his entire career. This year’s Davis Cup is wide open.”

Reflecting on the decision

Students of leadership and decision making are invited to consider the factors that Smith had to take into account in selecting when dropping a doubles player and replacing him the brother of the remaining doubles specialist.

The dropped player Dominick Inglot is English. Leon Smith and the Murray brothers are Scottish and have known each other well since their early playing days. Might that have been a consideration?  If not, why not?

What does the story suggest to you about distributed leadership?

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