Britain reach point of no return in Davis Cup

John Roberts on the problems facing British players as they try to stop their slide on clay courts this week
Click to follow
Great Britain's Davis Cup team has reached its lowest point without quite touching rock bottom. They are to be found one stratum above, flummoxed by the vagaries of clay.

The outcome of the tie against the Slovak Republic on slow red earth in Bratislava, which is due to start on Friday, will dictate whether the next moves are made with the hint of a spring in the step or with heels dug in to avoid a further ignominious slide.

Dwight Davis, who donated the sterling silver punch bowl at the turn of the century for competition between the United States and the British Isles, would be flattered that the event has grown to accommodate 115 nations, headed by a 16-strong World Group. But the late US Secretary of War could not have imagined that his old rivals would be reduced to campaigning in Group II of the Euro/African Zone, with demotion to Group III - effectively a fourth division - a dreaded possibility.

Clay courts were not a factor in the early days, before the appeal of lawn tennis spread to Continental Europe and Latin America. Clay remains an alien surface for the British, which is one of the reasons why the nation lacks the expertise to compete with the best and the majority of the rest.

While it is true that relegation to Group II came with the embarrassing slither of a 3-2 defeat by Romania on a supposedly friendly grass court in Didsbury, Manchester, last July, the British team were pushed to the brink by consecutive, confidence draining defeats on clay courts in Hungary and Portugal.

Chiefly because of the fame of Wimbledon and the wealth of the Lawn Tennis Association, beating Britain is still regarded by some as a triumph. For similar reasons, successful opponents are disposed to express sympathy when discussing the plight of Britain's players.

A case in point is Nuno Marques, the Portuguese No 1 who inflicted severe damage to the British cause in Oporto a year ago. "It's unbelievable the pressure they have," Marques said recently. "The thing is, I think you probably are not very positive. When I am there I feel that everybody wants so much to have a top British player that it's not healthy for the players.''

British Davis Cup players have little option but to pay frequent visits to clay courts as long as they remain trapped in zonal competition. "Instead of worrying about playing on clay you should build clay courts in England and educate the players on the surface," Marques advised, stating an obvious remedy which eventually dawned on the LTA and is being acted upon.

For example, the "Masters" of the men's LTA spring satellite circuit will run alongside a women's tour event at Bournemouth, sponsored by Rover Cars, from 16-20 May which is the first British clay-court championships for many years.

"Your players were not lucky with the draw, because they had to play in Hungary and Portugal, but besides the fact that they didn't play well, I think it was good for them to play on clay courts," Marques contended.

In the absence of Jeremy Bates, who has retired from international team competition, and Mark Petchey, who has neither the aptitude nor the appetite for clay courts, a good deal of responsibility passes to Tim Henman, the 20-year-old from Oxford who made a successful debut as Bates's doubles partner against Romania.

Marques rates Henman as a player with prospects. "I think he can play well on clay in the future, because he has good ground strokes," he said, adding an outsider's note of optimism about British tennis in general: "You have professional people in all parts of the game, so I think it's just a question of time.''

As a journeyman who has gained respect and popularity in his own country, the implications of a British success story do not escape him. "I read in the paper that Bates reached the fourth round in Wimbledon and there were people camping in the yard," Marques said. "If you have a top player, then he's going to have to move to another country."