Next week, Australia faces Great Britain in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup. There’s an obstacle in our path.
His name is Andy Murray, he’s the third-best player in the world, and he has not been beaten by an Australian in singles for the past 10 years. (*Who was the last Aussie to beat him in singles? The answer is below.)
The big issue is whether we can win the other two singles matches, and the crucial doubles match. To do that, we will need to have our best pair, picked on merit – not on sentiment, loyalty, reputation, inside connections, or all of the above.
In a word, we will need to have a pair that includes our best doubles player – a bloke called John Peers – rather than the best-placed aspirant for the position, Lleyton Hewitt.
Davis Cup captain Wally Masur has picked Australia’s squad for the last-four clash, with Nick Kyrgios’ omission – and Bernard Tomic’s return – headlining the announcement.
There was no place for Peers, not even as a hitting partner.
But if we really want to win the Davis Cup, there’s no room for sentiment: it’s time to say goodbye Lleyton, welcome Peersy.
Britain used to be easy meat when Murray, a Scottish nationalist, opted out of the Davis Cup.
But since then Andy has decided that he is also a Briton, and he’s played in every tie since 2013.
Now they stand just two ties from winning Great Britain’s first Davis Cup since 1936. Murray would love to add the Davis Cup to his Wimbledon, US Open and 2012 Olympics titles.
Andy gets on well with Kyrgios, but this year he’s put him out of three of the four grand slams, for the loss of just one set.
Maybe that’s why Kyrgios wasn’t included.
Murray has also beaten Bernard Tomic in straight sets both times he’s played him.
So the Scotsman will be confident against whoever he plays, be it Tomic or Sam Groth.
If Murray wins both his singles ties, Australia will have to beat Britain’s other singles player – probably James Ward, a journeyman with a history of outperforming himself in Davis Cup matches – both times just to stay alive.
On paper, any of the Aussies should be a sure bet to put away Ward, who is ranked just 135 in the world.
But then, on paper, John Isner should have squashed him in their first-round tie in Glasgow in March; instead, Ward beat the American number one 15-13 in the final set. It was the third time he has upended the rankings when Davis Cup pressure is on.
And the doubles will be crucial – particularly if Andy decides to join his older brother Jamie Murray to make up the British pair.
He doesn’t usually play doubles, but when he does, his Davis Cup record in this decade is 4-0.
That’s why we need John Peers. He’s a 27-year-old from Melbourne, who specialises in doubles.
He hasn’t attracted headlines, because the media treats doubles as not worth covering.
But he is now ranked 14th in the world in doubles. His partner, as it happens, is Jamie Murray.
Two months ago they were the runners-up at Wimbledon, now they are in the quarter-finals at the US Open – and Peers is the last Australian to score a win over Andy Murray.
Last month at the Canadian Open in Montreal, Andy decided to warm up for the Davis Cup by teaming up with Indian doubles whiz Leander Paes.
But in the first round, A. Murray and Paes found themselves up against J. Murray and Peers, who proceeded to win 6-4 7-6.
Peers is the son of former top 100 player Elizabeth Little. He went to college in the US, and joined the professional circuit in 2011.
In 2012, he made rapid progress up the doubles ranks, winning seven Challenger titles (mostly with fellow Aussie John-Patrick Smith), then early in 2013, swapped partners to play with Jamie Murray.
Within two months they had downed the Bryan brothers to win their first title on the main tour, and now they are ranked the fifth-best pair in the world.
Peers has been Australia’s top doubles player for several years now. So why hasn’t he been picked for the Davis Cup?
Because Hewitt stands in the way.
Hewitt is now 33, and semi-retired from tennis. But he has sought to maintain a niche in Australia’s Davis Cup team as a doubles player: first with Chris Guccione, and now with Groth.
It has been only partly successful: two wins, against Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but two losses against France and a stand-in pair from the Czech Republic.
Peers is ranked 14 in the world in doubles; Lleyton is ranked 166.
This year Peers’ record on the main tour is 35 wins to 19 losses; Lleyton’s is a humble 7-9.
Even over the past three years, Hewitt’s doubles record on the main tour is 25-26; Peers, by comparison, is 108-68.
We have the wrong man in the team.
OK, you can bring on all the clichés about Lleyton’s big heart, his service to the country, his ability to rise to the occasion.
The facts show that time and again, they have not been enough to ensure he wins doubles matches.
He is just not sharp enough, not threatening enough, to beat top players. And that’s what Australia needs.
By all means, have Lleyton in the wider squad for next week’s match in Glasgow.
He is a great inspiration to the younger players, an embodiment of commitment and fighting spirit. Just for him to be at courtside will help the boys on the court.
But he should not be one of the boys on the court. He is not good enough anymore; we have someone else who is better.
John Peers has long since earned his place on the Davis Cup court.
If he is not selected, it will suggest that Tennis Australia looks after its mates rather than picking teams on merit.
* Paul Baccanello, an Adelaide battler whose career was ended early by injury, was the last Aussie to beat Murray, then 18, in the quarter-finals of the Vancouver Challenger event in 2005. Six months later, Murray downed Lleyton Hewitt to win his first ATP title in San Diego, and no Australian has beaten him since.
Tim Colebatch is a tennis nut and former Fairfax journalist.