Brave young Britons facing defeat

TENNIS
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The Independent Online
Fresh faces, but a familiar situation. Britain are two down with three to play in their Davis Cup tie against the Slovak Republic here, and another relegation play-off looms.

The new recruits, Tim Henman and Miles Maclagan, both lost their initial singles matches in four sets yesterday, and history is against a recovery. Only once has a British team won from 2-0 down, and that was as long ago as 1930, at home to Germany. Britain have been 2-0 down on the opening day of each of their last five matches, defeats which have taken them from the 16-strong World Group to the brink of Group III of the Euro/African Zone.

On this occasion, however, it is possible to avoid calling up the the usual phrase "depressingly familiar". Although Henman and Maclagan were to a large extent outplayed on the day by higherranked opponents, both displayed characteristics of determination and stamina on the type of slow clay court which usually is anathema to British players.

David Lloyd may have to begin his reign as captain with a holding operation against Egypt or Monaco at Eastbourne in July on succeeding Bill Knight after this tie, but at least he has witnessed signs of encouragement from the two 20-year-olds chosen to shoulder the responsibility here.

Maclagan was particularly impressive in terms of attitude. In the squad for the first time, he found himself facing the Slovakian No 1, Karol Kucera, ranked 226 places above him at No 59 in the world, after Henman had lost the opening rubber.

For two sets, it appeared that Maclagan would be totally, and perhaps embarrassingly, outclasssed. Kucera, combining brilliant stroke production with astute tactics, won the first two sets in only 65 minutes. "At 3- 6, 2-6," Maclagan said, "I thought, 'Welcome to the Davis Cup'."

When Maclagan again lost his serve for 2-3 in the third set, the match seemed finished, but he broke Kucera twice to lead 5-3. The Briton then lost his own serve after holding two set points, but he cracked Kucera in the next game, on his fourth opportunity.

The Slovakian immediately regained the initiative at the start of the fourth set, breaking Maclagan and holding to love for 2-0. Maclagan then showed his tanacity, levelling to 2-2 and then fighting back from 2-5 to 5-5.

He twice broke Kucera when he was serving for the match, saving two match points in the 10th game, only to be broken for 6-5 after creating game points. A relieved Kucera finally punched away a forehand volley on his third match point to win 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in three hours and six minutes.

Henman's match against Jan Kroslak, the Slovakian No 2, also lasted slightly more than three hours. Ranked 92 places below the lean and nimble Kroslak, at No 217, Henman appeared the more nervous at the start, and he, too, lost the opening two sets.

Kroslak seemed shocked to be put on the defensive by a resilient opponent in the third set, and he mentioned afterwards that he began to be troubled by back pain as well as Henman's punishing shots. They traded breaks of serve, Henman saving seven break points in the ninth game before Kroslak double-faulted on set point in the 10th. Though Henman recovered a 0-2 deficit in the fourth set to level at 3-3, Kroslak broke to love in the next game and went on to win 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

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