It could hardly be more ideal for the game and the competition if Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the two best players in the world, duel over the Davis Cup quarter-final outdoors at high summer in Belgrade, even though that would present the Scot with the toughest possible impediment to leading Great Britain to a successful defence of the title they won in 2015 for the first time in 79 years.
The Scot is unequivocally up for it. After beating Kei Nishikori in five sets that took nearly as many hours in Birmingham on Sunday to seal their opening tie 3-1, Murray was visibly put out when asked if he had carried the intensity of 2015 into the new campaign. “I just fought for four hours and 54 minutes,” he said, curtly. “It was one of the longest matches I have ever played in my life. I have been away from the court for five weeks. I don’t know if it is meant to be, but that sounds like a very strange question.” He will be there for as long as this fight takes.
And what of the Serb? He has shown physical frailty the past few weeks, quitting during a match in Dubai with an eye problem and nursing a sore shoulder through the tightest of wins against Kazakhstan last weekend.
Djokovic has yet to commit, and it could be that he will prioritise the Olympics in Rio in August, although it would not be a great look in his hometown, where nationalism is frighteningly intense, if he were to leave an otherwise underpowered squad to fend for themselves against the defending champions.
There are murmurs the Serbs are considering staging the tie outdoors in the capital, which would not only put extra pressure on Djokovic to play, but lend lustre to a dream showdown between the No1 and No2 players in the ATP rankings. Djokovic, after all, has a 22-9 career record against Murray, 11 of those arriving in their past 12 matches. It is a dominance that would crush a lesser player than the Scot, but the man who knows him better than anyone outside his family, Leon Smith, the Great Britain captain, does not see it that way.
“Andy can beat anyone – including Novak,” he says, reflecting on the fact Murray’s two slam titles have come in finals against the Serb. “And Davis Cup is different. You see that with Novak [who credits leading Serbia to their only cup, in 2010, as the turning point of his career]. You see that with performances like the one Kei put out here. He got really close to Andy. You have got your team-mates on the side of the court. You have got home and away support. Look at Novak’s match in Belgrade [where Mikhail Kukushkinmight have won had he not faded only in the final set], it is never straightforward, is it? It is an amazing competition. Funny things happen.”
Smith might have an unexpected ace. Aljaz Bedene, the Slovenia-born world No51 who trained with the squad all last week, goes before an eligibility panel of the International Tennis Federation in Moldova on 20 March. If he wins his appeal he could figure in selection for Belgrade – which would please Smith and the nation, but might be a blow to his rivals for a singles place alongside Murray: Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund and James Ward.
Smith said: “If he becomes available, it’s another high-quality player that we’ve got at our disposal – not that he would necessarily come into the team, of course, because there’s a bit of time before the next tie. But he’s going to be a great addition to our squad, which is already really strong. Fingers crossed it goes his way.”
If he is being kind to the rest of the squad, it is understandable. They are a tight-knit unit, and Smith will be watching their progress across the globe this week.
“James is playing a Puebla Challenger, Kyle has squeaked into the Indian Wells main draw, which is great. Aljaz has too. Andy leaves for Indian Wells [on Monday], as do Jamie [Murray] and Dom [Inglot]. Evo [Evans] leaves for the Drummondsville Challenger on Wednesday.”
On Sunday the titans prevailed. They nearly always do, whatever the struggle. The blockbuster confrontation in the next round was secured. In July, a week after Wimbledon, the two most awesome of them are scheduled to collide again, for honours unmeasurable at the bank.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010