Britain fear the unknown

Simon O'Hagan looks ahead to a Davis Cup contest that poses problems
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NO SOONER had Jeremy Bates announced his retirement from Davis Cup competition at the end of last year than he embarked on one of his best spells on the ATP Tour, taking him to 54 in the world rankings, his highest ever.

So his absence from the Great Britain team who resume Davis Cup duty this week will be all the more sorely felt. A resurgent Bates, at 32 still the British No 1 and for the past 10 years the backbone of the side, would certainly have given them a more solid look. As it is, Britain's highest-ranked player for the match against Slovakia, starting in Bratislava on Friday, will be Chris Wilkinson, at 153.

As nobody at the Lawn Tennis Association needs reminding, Britain have never, in Davis Cup terms, sunk as low as this. Defeats last year away to Portugal and at home to Romania consigned them to Euro/African Zone Group II, effectively the third division of the world game; but, as Bates said last week, any thought that his compatriots have at last found opposition they can knock over at will should be dismissed.

"People think `Slovakia' and don't even know where it is," Bates said. "This is not a level to be underestimated." Not least because the Slovakians have opted to play the match on clay, most British players' least favourite surface. They also possess in Karol Kucera, ranked 59th in the world, easily the strongest player on either side.

The British team is completed by Danny Sapsford, Tim Henman and the doubles specialist Neil Broad, and, called up this week, Miles McLagan. This means no place for the No 2 player in the domestic rankings, Mark Petchey, whose talents failed to shine against Romania in Manchester last year when the advantage of a grass court could not save Britain from ignominy.

Wilkinson, aged 25 and ranked third in Britain, thus carries a good deal of responsibility, his three previous Davis Cup appearances making him the most experienced member of the party. He is best known for his performances in the past two Wimbledons, reaching the third round on both occasions. His recent form, on the French satellite circuit, has been mixed.

Sapsford, aged 26, is recalled after a four-year absence from the team, having made his Davis Cup debut in 1990. A player whose fighting spirit is just what is needed in one-off matches, he has had a good winter, qualifying for the main draw for four ATP tournaments. "Danny really deserves it," Bates said. "He's shown a lot of guts recently."

Henman, 20 years old, looked accomplished on his debut against Romania last year when his partnership with Bates in their successful doubles match was the only high point. But his progress was interrupted when he broke his leg. He will be the likely partner in the doubles for the South African-born Broad, at 28 the oldest man in the party. The 20-year-old McLagan, never before selected for the Davis Cup, joins the squad on the strength of his qualifying for last week's ATP Challenger tournament in Monte Carlo.

This week, temperament will count for more than ability, especially when the demands of the clay court are thrown in. "It's a completely different game," Bates said. "It's all about mentality, patience, strength over long points and how you cope when you're spending hours on the court. Although the Slovakians are more used to clay, they are not out-and-out clay players."

Whatever the outcome, this is very much a transition phase for Britain, with David Lloyd, long one of the LTA's harshest critics, replacing Bill Knight as captain after the Slovakia match. The appointment has created a keen sense of anticipation in British tennis. It would be good for him, and everyone else in the domestic game if dawn has already broken by the time he takes over proper for the home match in July against either Egypt or Monaco.