Exclusive: Leon Smith on Andy Murray’s Australian Open quest and meeting Martin O’Neill

Stewart Fisher, Sports Writer / 00:32 Sunday 17 January 2016 / Sport

WIDER recognition finally came Leon Smith’s way during 2015. The Scot, who led Great Britain to their first Davis Cup triumph since 1936, accepted the Team of the Year prize on behalf of the group at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena last month, and found introductions were no longer required, even when meeting one of his football heroes, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill.

“I wasn’t really star stuck but you end up having conversations,” Smith said. “Martin O’Neill was very friendly and I talked to him for a while. You didn’t have to introduce yourself to anyone, everyone who is in sport seems to follow most other sports, and he just said: ‘You did really well, well done’.

“It was nice to get [the team]back together, just enjoy each other’s company without having to prepare for a match, and reflect on what was an absolutely historic win for us. It was nice to get recognised by people who have done so much in their own sports and the night was topped off brilliantly by Andy’s individual award.”

All that, however, is so last year. Tennis has only the most fleeting of close seasons and the new year brings with it new challenges, namely the Australian Open, which gets under way in Melbourne today UK time.

After casting his eye over 50 of Scotland’s most promising young players at a Tennis Scotland training camp at Stirling University between Christmas and New Year, and another brush with footballing celebrity as a guest of Hibernian for the Ladbrokes Championship meeting with Rangers at Ibrox, Smith was back on the other side of the world last week, sitting by Andy Murray’s side high in the Melbourne Park stands as James Ward and Dan Evans attempted to battle their way through qualifying.

In his ongoing day job as Britain’s Davis Cup captain – the bid to retain the trophy kicks off in March against Japan in Birmingham – suddenly Smith has an embarrassment of riches to keep tabs on.

There are three direct acceptance British singles players – Murray, Aljaz Bedene and Kyle Edmund – Dan Evans, who made it through the qualifiers, as well as the likes of Jamie Murray, Colin Fleming and Dom Inglot in the doubles.

“It is so good to come to a slam and see so many British players competing and milling about in the players’ areas again,” Smith said. “It is also good to see so many British coaches now working at that level. That will be good for our game in the longer term.”

The main item of business, of course, is Andy Murray’s pursuit of that elusive first Australian Open singles title. Conditions in Melbourne can be changeable but the 28-year-old from Dunblane usually finds them to his liking. Four times he has reached the final (2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015) only to find the last hurdle insurmountable.

Murray was beaten by the evergreen Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic on the three other occasions, but the good news for the Scot and his army of supporters is that the first time he can meet either man this year will be in the final. However, it is a fair bet that the Serb will be there, having reached 16 of the last 21 major finals.

While Murray always scoffs at reporters who look too far ahead in the draw, his 2016 Australian Open route could have been harder and he could be forgiven for a sneaky glance at what might await him down the line.

His extravagantly talented, 18-year-old, 6ft 6in first-round opponent Alexander Zverev could present some difficulties, and the likes of Sam Groth, Bernard Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt would have the home crowd behind them at the tournament. Meanwhile, his potential semi-final opponents, Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal, both overcame the world No 2 at the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November and can beat most players on their day. It is the awesome challenge of Djokovic, however, that is really focusing minds.

“The main thing is that Andy finished the year at No 2,” said Smith. “You can see now how important that was. It gets you in the other half of the draw from Djokovic, who was obviously the outstanding player on the tour last year. That is why Andy worked so hard to get it.

“He is in good form. He has prepared well, he played a lot of matches last year, played deep into the year and that helps him. He is still very much match tight.”

Due to the extended Davis Cup run, Smith and Murray probably spent as much time together as they have at any point since the days when Smith was chaperoning the teenage Scot through his first tastes of competitive tennis. It gives him inside information on his mindset 

as 2016 begins. “I spent a lot of time with Andy last year,” Smith said. “It is not just Djokovic he is trying to beat. He is just one player, but he happens to be the best player and if you are going to win slams then at the moment he tends to be the man who is in many finals.”

It would help, of course, if Djokovic, who also has a tough opening opponent in South Korea’s talented Hyeong Chung, showed signs of mortality. But Murray is likely to have to do things the hard way.

“It is tough to say that Djokovic can’t keep going like this because his level of consistency during 2015 was so good,” said Smith.

“He is not going to let up, not going to dip. It is a question of everyone else, including Andy, if they do play him, trying to break his game up and find ways to play against him. But it is not just Andy thinking that, every top player is working so hard every single day to find a way.

“It is important not to think just about Djokovic, but think about improving your own game. That is what Andy always does, but equally that is what all the other guys are doing. Everyone is trying to make those small gains at the very top end which can make a difference.”

It helps in this regard to have Amelie Mauresmo, a winner of the women’s title in 2006, back by his side. The Scot and the Frenchwoman enjoy excellent chemistry, while her five-month old son, Aaron, is a new presence.

Murray, of course, will soon follow Djokovic and Federer in the list of the game’s young fathers, with his wife Kim due to give birth next month, but Smith, who has three young children, sees it as a positive.

“It is a great thing, and Andy is very excited about parenthood,” Smith said. “I think he will be a wonderful father – he has great values, is very much a family person and a very loyal person.”

Conditions during the day in Melbourne in January can be borderline unplayable but so far, with one exception, they have been good.

“There has only really been one day when it was really hot here, Wednesday, when they brought in the heat rule,” said Smith. “It got to 42 degrees, but since then it has been very cool, and on Thursday night during the qualifying matches it was absolutely freezing by the side of the court.

“I think it is going to heat up again, somewhere in the mid-30s, but conditions do change a lot here, that is why the experience Andy and the other top guys have helps.”

The world No 2 may be playing it cool as 2016 begins but the action is about to heat up.

Scotlightdaily.com is the online edition of Scotland's favourite newspapers, that brings you your Daily news. Every day we bring you the best in Scottish news, sport, entertainment and opinion, including breaking news, picture galleries, videos and live blogs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *