Leon Smith: Davis Cup memories will live with us forever
Davis Cup captain Leon Smith came home last week and brought a rather special present with him.
As part of the Davis Cup legacy trophy tour those involved in Britain’s incredible success last year got the chance to select their personal choice of venues to be included on the schedule.
As a result Leon was at Giffnock Tennis Club - the club where he began his coaching career - last week.
It was a memorable day for the club. One of celebrations, coaching sessions for enthusiastic youngsters, photo opportunities with the iconic trophy - and sunshine.
And despite a hectic schedule Leon took time out to speak to Johnston Press Scottish Weeklies, recalling some amazing experiences during last year’s Davis Cup campaign and explaining just why coming back to Giffnock meant so much.
Here’s what he had to say.
Q: What does it mean to you to bring this amazing Davis Cup trophy back here, to the club where you started your coaching career?
A: “It really is amazing, today’s been great. Giffnock was first my first coaching job. I was assistant coach here, that was the first step into the coaching world, aged I think 18 or 19.
“But also today I was at Clarkston Tennis Club where I grew up playing tennis from the age of eight years old and then was also at my school Hutcheson’s Grammar School, at the primary school there, so it means an awful lot to be able to do that.
“I know last week when Jamie was in Dunblane doing his it meant just as much to him. It’s really good to go back to where it all started.”
Q: How did you become involved in tennis and are there any experiences from that time which still stand you in good stead today as part of your coaching mentality?
A: “I got involved because my parents moved straight across the road from Clarkston Tennis Club and that’s what allowed me to be able to cross the road and hit lots of tennis balls. My brothers are roughly the same age so we could just play a lot but it was a very healthy club with a lot of club matches, the coaching was really good.
“And when I came to actually start playing a bit of tennis but also coaching here at Giffnock the club was great. Colin Hamridge at the time was running the coaching programme here and he just had such a vibrant programme. There were loads of players to practice with, there were loads of matches organised, the teams were all full.
“Also a lot of friendships come from that and actually a lot of the group I’ve seen today here at Clarkston and at Giffnock as well are people I stay in touch with.
“That’s the thing if you’re at a healthy club, you’re playing the team matches, you’re getting to practice a lot, you get a whole ton of friends that basically you have kept for life.
“From the coaching side of things, what does still apply is creating a great environment. It doesn’t matter whether I’m trying to run a Davis Cup team, one of the reasons Andy keeps turning up, and he’s said it openly, is because he absolutely loves the training week.
“The matches are really stressful and hard work but he actually loves being around the guys, the environment we create. It’s a different environment but it’s still trying to be fun and it’s just as important when when they’re out there on the courts here to have a lot of fun and it’s great to see.”
Q: How do you feel about the achievements so far of young players such as Maia Lumsden, Ewen Lumsden and Aidan McHugh - all coached by your brother Toby - and what advice would you give them to help them maintain their progress?
A: “The players you have mentioned are doing very, very well. They are obviously at quite early stages of moving through that transition from junior tennis and maybe thinking about what to do when they get to the end of their junior life at 18 or 19. Do I go to university? Do I become professional? It’s a big decision and it’s quite early to tell, especially the 15 and 16-year-olds. You have to try to get a bit more evidence before you jump in.
“But they’re doing very well, they’ve got a very good coach with Toby. But the main thing they have to do is make a decision based on how much they really want to do this because if they are embarking on professional tennis it is so challenging, it is a very, very tough environment to get yourself out of a big pack globally to become a tour player.
“If they have got the drive and the determination, then great. Then you have to work hard and we’ve got the best role model ever possible in Andy Murray to show them what it is to actually commit to a sport and go after your dreams.
“You look at how he changed physically from the age of 17 or 18 through to when he was 20 or 21. That took an awful lot of work so there’s no shortcuts to be taken.”
Q: During the Davis Cup run last year was there a specific point during the campaign when it dawned on you that you could actually win the trophy?
A: “I’m not being guarded here, it’s absolutely true. Not until really the last ball was struck, maybe the last couple of games. Because I’ve seen it before, we’ve caused upsets before in the past.
“No-one would have thought James Ward at two sets down would have come back to beat John Isner late on a Friday night in Glasgow. No way people would have thought that. And that’s why perhaps sometimes, during the heat of the battle through the weekends I’m quite guarded in keeping the expectations in check and so is Andy for that reason.
“If you look at the final in Ghent, or even the semi-final doubles match with Australia which went to the fifth rubber. It’s on those lines, anything can happen. Hewitt and Groth at one point were on absolute fire against the Murrays and they showed such resilience to be able to get through that.
“Again in Ghent in the final the boys go a set up in that doubles, they claw it back to a set all, break down in the third. Upsets happen and they happen in Davis Cup.
“Djokovic just got through an epic against Kukushkin, in Serbia, and that’s what amazing about this competition.
“Really and honestly, not until the final stages of Andy’s match against Goffin did I feel we were really there. Did I think we had a chance? Yeah, but the reality is you wait and wait until you’re there.”
Q: The atmosphere in Glasgow, particularly during the doubles against Australia, was unbelievable. How does that support affect the players and as a Glaswegian what was it like being in the midst of that ‘mayhem’ or do you try to detach yourself from it?
A: “You do try and keep focussed, more so for the players as well, but you couldn’t help but feel the energy which was there. It was like nothing that any of the players had experienced. Andy talks about it - and he plays in THE biggest stadiums and arenas in the world - and our memories of that are at the highest.
“There was the noise, the occasion. In particular I remember walking out for the USA tie in March and Andy hadn’t been back in Scotland on the court since becoming Wimbledon champion and Olympic champion and the reception he got was just so loud when we walked out for the opening ceremony.
“Dominic Inglot was just behind me and I just remember him saying “Oh. My. God.” We literally couldn’t believe it, we were standing in the middle before the national anthems and I think everyone’s legs were just shaking at the noise, it was incredible.
“The doubles match against Australia was just an epic encounter and I think it was great that Hewitt was involved. Everyone knows Hewitt so well, maybe less so Groth apart from the tennis enthusiasts.
“Hewitt was fighting for everything, it was his last tie and it just had everything in it and it shows the strength of character that Jamie and Andy, and the trust they’ve got as a partnership, were able to get through that. It was absolutely amazing.
“We talk a lot about those ties as a team still and we will do for evermore because it was exceptional.”
Q: What are your long-term hopes for the Davis Cup legacy initiatives. What part can clubs like Giffnock play and what effects will it have on them as a club within their local communities.
A: “It’s a team effort. We’re obviously driving the initiatives, the Tennis For Kids programme in particular because we may only have the trophy for one year of course.
“The coaching side of things is so important and that’s why we targeted new kids to get into the sport. If we can work together with the coaches that are at these clubs, centres, parks, schools that bring this huge amount of energy, enthusiasm and passion, coupled with a good understanding of what skills to develop with the children at a young age which allow them to become more and more confident in how to play tennis, that is a formula that can keep kids in the sport at the clubs, developing through time.
“It doesn’t matter if they become a champion or not but the numbers will swell and it will be a very healthy environment for tennis in our country and that’s what we’ve really got to try hard to do.
“The Tennis For Kids programme and the Davis Cup legacy - it’s in the word. This does not stop at a six-week programme and end there. We want to go back and revisit it after the summer and for sure make it bigger and better in 2017 regardless of what happens with our campaign this year.”
Q: Is there a social and health aspect to the programme as well as the tennis itself?
A: “Definitely. We want to ensure that all the children have access to sport. What we want to do is promote the idea that tennis is the one to get involved with and it has got huge health benefits and not just from a young age.
“You look at tennis at the clubs and people are playing well into their 60s, 70s and beyond and it’s a very healthy sport for that.
“As you say it’s the social environment. What I think helped is that Davis Cup was a vehicle people could relate to a little bit more rather than seeing the individual competition.
“I think when you see yourself as part of a team you can bring that back into clubs a little bit easier, you represent your club and play for the club, you get your t-shirt and everyone feels an identity and a community around them and that’s what we’re trying to achieve in places like Giffnock.
“If you look at the numbers that are out on the court just now it’s absolutely fantastic. They have got great courts down, wonderful facilities, mini-tennis courts. It’s wonderful and it’s clubs like these and Clarkston, Newlands and Whitecraigs in this area that can really drive what we want to do with tennis.”