Listen carefully and you’ll hear a sound rarely heard: that of the tide shifting in British men’s tennis.
It all started when the undisputed top dog and the man who used to play second fiddle reached a Nadir within weeks of each other. First, the fall of the lodestar. Andy Murray’s hip has been out of commission since July 2017; he hasn’t played competitively since Wimbledon and his ranking now exceeds his 30 years of age. The wonders of surgery, coupled with the unflagging resolve that Murray typically summons in the face of adversity, could be enough to squeeze some extra mileage out of one of the most battered bodies in tennis. Or there might be more than a kernel of truth to Andrew Castle’s doom-laden forecast suggesting that Murray’s goose is cooked whatever he does. Either way, Murray’s imminent return to action at the Glasgow Trophy Challenger event will tell us all we need to know about where he is physically.
For very different reasons, Dan Evans also faces the challenge of having to put the pieces of a shattered career back together. Evans, who sat proudly at a career-high ranking of No.41 last March, derailed everything he had worked for by his own hand, viz. an out-of-competition dalliance with cocaine, to which he owes a failed drugs test, £90,000 in lost prize money, and a one-year suspension. His ban ends today (24 April), and he too has picked the Glasgow Trophy to be his comeback tournament.
A ‘mixed picture’ is the description that most accurately aligns with the former British No.2’s probable future. At 27 years old (28 in May), Evans is in his prime years as a tennis player. Further, he has stayed injury-free. Those two factors would be decisively to Evans’ benefit if there weren’t such a conspicuous gulf between his and Murray’s levels of discipline and conscientiousness, however. The steep slippage in his ranking— Evans currently hovers around the high 900s—hardly helps matters either. All bets are off in terms of what lies ahead for him.
Against the bleak backdrop of Murray struggling with injury and a foolhardy Evans digging his own grave, British tennis fans have been in want of new faces to keep the winning tradition alive. Alone in his responsiveness to their call is Kyle Edmund, who reached the semi-finals of the 2018 Australian Open.
As a result of his Cinderella run down under, Edmund unseated Murray as the British No.1. At a stroke, he partially compensated for his history of underperforming at the majors, exposed the world to the destructive capabilities of his forehand, and elevated himself into the top 30.
Conceivably, Edmund’s attributes could catapult him yet higher: His adeptness at attaching a fearsome follow-up forehand to his serve, much-improved conditioning, and increasing recognition of when (and how) to finish points at net are qualities which have top ten player written all over them. Better still, he won’t have to contend with the sort of competitors that so regularly got in Murray’s way, three of whom will be found in every who’s who of the greatest players of the Open Era. Zverev, Chung, Kyrgios, Thiem, Rublev and the rest simply don’t compare.
Nevertheless, a Grand Slam semi-finalist does not an heir to Murray make. Far from it, in fact. As Edmund himself has magnanimously conceded, the British No.1 spot became his practically by default—Murray’s inactivity has utterly deprived him of the ability to influence what happens to his own ranking. On top of that, the role reversal between Murray and Edmund—whether it be provisional or permanent—prompts a discussion about the standards of excellence set by the Scot, and how far the expectations for his successor should be adjusted downward.
By way of a reminder, Murray, who retained the number one ranking for 41 consecutive weeks, has won three Grand Slams, 14 Masters 1000 titles, a Davis Cup, two Olympic gold singles medals (2012 & 2016), the ATP Tour Finals, and 45 career titles in aggregate; his name has been synonymous with British tennis for upwards of a decade. Edmund, on the other hand, has a single top ten win to his name (Dimitrov in Australia) and, as of nine days ago, just the one ATP Final (he lost in straights on the clay of Marrakech to veteran Spaniard Pablo Andújar). It’s fanciful to picture him achieving more than a fraction of what Murray has, but a ‘fraction’, in this regard, can be construed rather elastically. Edmund is in his early twenties and has plenty of time to accrete a fine set of accomplishments in his own right. By the same token, the upcoming years will make for depressing viewing if he is destined to play the part of the Henman-esque nearly man.
To cite someone else capable of assuming Murray’s mantle without stretching the limits of credulity is no easy task. All the same, I don’t consider it a pointless exercise to assess the prospects of the outsiders. Presently, the third-best British tennis player is Cameron Norrie, ranked just north of 100. Norrie is a 22-year-old lefty who was born to a Scottish father and Welsh mother in Johannesburg then spent the bulk of his childhood in New Zealand. He turned pro last Summer on the back of a standout college tennis career at Texas Christian University.
The winner of three Challengers in 2017, Norrie boasts a serviceable baseline game and a workmanlike attitude, though his success on the main tour has been limited by the absence from his armoury of a lethal finishing shot, as well as a relatively weak serve (he doesn’t exploit the benefits of being left-handed nearly as much as he should). As things stand, Norrie’s five-set win over well-established top 30 resident Roberto Bautista Agut in the February Davis Cup tie against Spain outranks his two others at tour-level by a fair margin. Breaking into the top 100 is an attainable target for him in 2018.
A second southpaw, Liam Broady, impressed as a junior but has moved at a laggard pace as a pro. Back in September 2017, Broady earned his first victory in the main draw of an ATP event at the St Petersburg Open and went on to make the quarter-finals. Then, as now, that run is the high-water mark of a professional career Broady started four years ago and has mainly kept afloat with a busy schedule of Challenger tournaments.
Moving swiftly on from Broady, remember James Ward? After climbing to a career-high No.89 and helping Britain win the Davis Cup in 2015, he seemingly fell off the map last year. It turns out that marriage, knee surgery, and the itinerant life of the Arsenal season ticket holder interrupted Ward’s 2017 season. In his usual capacity, the 31-year-old Londoner has alternated between playing on the Futures and Challenger circuits. It’s anyone’s guess as to what he’ll make of his final years on tour.
Despite the reshuffle in its hierarchy, men’s tennis in Britain will be in decent health for the foreseeable future, as the top three won’t be going away anytime soon. Still, the end of Murray’s unilateral rule will take some getting used to. Hereafter, expect a period of musical chairs, with Murray and Edmund trading places as the top-ranked Brit. Until the next colossus comes along, that is.