Fencer makes his point at last

Owen Slot meets a man chosen for Great Britain after 20 years at the top
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The Independent Online
THOUGH the first blows in the 1995 World Fencing Championships have yet to be struck, there is one competitor who has already won a considerable battle. For the past 25 years, one of Britain's top fencers, Robin Davenport, has coveted a place in the national team; at 49 he has finally hit the target.

Davenport will be something of a collector's item when the tournament begins in The Hague this week: he is twice the average age of the other competitors and the oldest man on the British epee team by 18 years. The unemployed swordsman from Sutton, in Surrey, is not the only antique in the game - a Swiss fencer in his forties (earlier forties) will be in Holland, a former German champion of the same age could have qualified had he not been retired by his national team - but not since the Fifties has Britain fielded a fencer of such experience.

Not that Davenport has ever experienced a World Championships. "In 1974 I felt I should have been in the team, likewise in 1977, and in 1981 I felt I certainly would have been an asset," he said last week. This is not to mention 1972 and 1979 when he finished third in the British Championships and was still neglected, or 1985, when he was ranked third in Britain and could hardly have been left behind but for the selectors' unprecedented decision to reduce the team from five to two.

Not surprisingly, he sees his selection for the team this time round as a delayed riposte to those who kept him out of it in the past. "They always liked to maintain the status quo rather than bring in younger people," he said, enjoying the irony. Youth may not quite be his trump card any more, but the squad - now made up of four epeeists - is picked on national rankings rather than selectorial whim. When it was announced a month ago, Davenport squeezed in: he was ranked fourth.

The following week, his defiance of the ageing process took a jolt. He injured his back moving some furniture and was forced to sit out the next team training session. Opposing fencers, luckily, cause him less physical strain than his Welsh dresser because of a fighting style that is based almost totally on defence rather than attack.

The epee - a development of the old duelling rapier - is particularly suited to defence which is one reason why Davenport can fight to such a level at such an age.

Other reasons for Davenport's success, according to Ziemek Wojciechowski, the national epee coach, are his extraordinary determination, his cleverness, tenacity and his ability to play the waiting game. "Younger people haven't got enough patience to fight him. He'll suck them in, wait for them to commit themselves and then he will parry or counter-attack."

Occasionally Davenport will also pick a fight with the referee. Among his most notorious scraps was at a competition in Leicester a few years ago when he was disqualified for swearing at a referee and only forgiven because his opponent pleaded for leniency. "I'm a bit like McEnroe," he said. Do such incidents occur often? "Nearly being disqualified is not a common occurrence. Arguing about the rules I do quite a lot."

He always has done. Malcolm Fare, who used to fight Davenport 20 years ago, recalls a competition in Berlin in 1974 that employed an unusually complex scoring system. Because of it, all the fencers accepted the final results as they were given - apart from Davenport, that is, who complained on Fare's behalf and managed to improve his compatriot's placing from third to second.

"I was delighted," Fare said, "but I think he was equally glad simply to have pointed up the officials' mistake. This nit-picking attitude has served him well ever since. People certainly breathe a sigh of relief when they realise they don't have to meet him."

Although the British team will prove no threat to the favourites, Italy, in the World Championships, Davenport will still be one to avoid at The Hague. And he will remain the bane of the opposition in the future, despite having fulfilled his ambition, as he has his sights set on the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Most fencers peak in their late twenties and early thirties, but there are few signs that the march of time has yet caught up with Davenport. Does he think it will? "I don't know. I expected it to 10 years ago." He is still waiting.