A magic carpet ride for Henman

Simon O'Hagan examines Britain's chances of rejoining real world of tennis
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The Independent Online
Little did the Lawn Tennis Association realise when they imaginatively chose Newcastle as the venue for next weekend's Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and Slovenia that the city might have other things on its mind - like the football team's attempt to win the Premier League championship.

"It's a bit unfortunate," David Lloyd, the Great Britain captain, said. "But it will still be a good event." The tennis looks a pretty black and white affair as well, in that by the time Sunday afternoon comes around - which is when Newcastle are at home to Spurs - Britain will surely have the tie sewn up. They ought to win the first three of the five matches - Friday's two singles and Saturday's doubles.

No sooner had Britain descended to their lowest point in Davis Cup history with the 1994 defeat by Romania that consigned them to Euro/Africa Zone II - in effect the third division of the international game - than they acquired in Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski players who were worthy of much higher standing.

But the wheels of the Davis Cup turn very slowly, and having brushed aside Monaco on the grass of Eastbourne last July, Britain now face another match in which, for all talk of the dangers of complacency, defeat is inconceivable. Henman comes to Newcastle buoyed by excellent performances in Seoul last week and can look back on a winter in which he has risen from outside the world's top 100 to around the 50 mark.

While Rusedski has slipped back into the fifties, he and Henman will surely be unstoppable on the medium-fast carpet surface. Slovenia's highest- ranked player is Iztok Bozic at 426, and two of the four members of their squad are not even in the top 1,000. An added advantage for Great Britain is that Slovenia were among their opponents in the European Cup played in Dublin last December, and in six sets - two singles matches and a doubles - they came no closer to winning one than a solitary tie-break. "It was useful to be able to have a look at them and it's definitely helped us psychologically," Lloyd said. "But you get some strange results in the Davis Cup."

Assuming this is not one of them, Great Britain's likely next match will be away to Ghana in July - a slightly tougher proposition. But victory there would give them a home match in September - in all probability against Egypt - that would represent the last hurdle on the way to rejoining Euro/Africa Zone I, from which there is access to the World Group, the competition's top tier.

The Great Britain team will be the same one that beat Monaco and went to Dublin, with Henman and Rusedski contesting the singles, and Mark Petchey and Neil Broad pairing up for the doubles. Lloyd has also included in the squad Nick Gould, a 23-year-old from Bristol who hasmade good progress under the tutelage of Peter Fleming during the winter.

"He's worked very hard and I wanted him to get a feel of the Davis Cup," Lloyd said. "It's important that we have players who can close the gap to Tim and Greg. I want them to realise what the top guys have got and that they can achieve it too."

The presence of Henman and Rusedski is what gives the event its lustre, and Lloyd was keen to stress that - bearing in mind the relatively meagre rewards on offer, a pounds 1,500 match fee and a bonus pool for winning of pounds 10,000 - Great Britain were fortunate to have two players earning sizeable amounts on the professional circuit so committed to the national cause.

"They realise how important it is to put the team before the individual," he said. "All the players have been given the challenge to get back into the World Group and they've knitted together well and shown they want to be in a team that wins." Spare a cheer for them, St James' Park.

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