Giant's leap into big time

Andrew Richardson determined to build on his Davis Cup success
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A Young tennis player is plucked from the obscurity of the Indoor Satellite circuit, where crowds can be counted on the fingers of two hands, to represent his country in a vital Davis Cup tie. He is plunged in against a big-match specialist ranked more than 200 places higher than him - and beats him in five sets. If it sounds like a tall story, it is. But only because of the height of the tennis player concerned: 6ft 7in Andrew Richardson, hero of Britain's doomed Davis Cup effort against Zimbabwe.

At the Lawn Tennis Association's headquarters at Queen's Club in west London, everyone calls Richardson "Flex", a reference not to his shampoo of choice but his ability to get his lanky frame around a tennis court at unfeasibly high speed. Early last Tuesday morning he sat in the canteen at Queen's, modestly deflecting praise for his achievement the previous weekend, when he gave the tough, experienced Byron Black a set's head- start and a beating.

"I started nervously," Richardson recalled. "But I told myself that five sets is a long time, I gave myself time to get into it. I knew that if I hung in there I would get chances, and that is the way it turned out." His effort was sustained by the support from the capacity 2,500 crowd, and by the shouts of encouragement from other British players, most notably Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, who had been ruled out of the tie by injuries, making way for Richardson and his friend Jamie Delgado.

"I can't speak highly enough of the support I got from the other players at the weekend," Richardson said. "Tim was out of his seat all the time yelling me on, and so were all the others. It sums up the attitude among us at the moment, that we are all happy to see the others doing well."

Unfortunately for Britain's Davis Cup chances, the others - apart from Richardson - did not do well at Crystal Palace. The doubles pairing, Mark Petchey and Neil Broad, were beaten by Byron Black and his younger brother Wayne, and Delgado was frankly embarrassed by Byron in their singles encounter. But support extends to sympathy. "It was hard watching James," Richardson said. "I knew how he must have been feeling out there, and I know how well he can play."

The knowledge was gained on the junior circuit, through which the two progressed together. Richardson first picked up a racket at the age of nine, in Bourne, in Lincolnshire, where his family still live. He was quickly picked up by county coaches and moved through the system into the national squad.

There he encountered Delgado, who at the time appeared to be an outstanding talent, winning the prestigious Orange Bowl title at Under-14 level. Richardson was, by his own admission, "just an OK junior". What he needed was strength to go with his height, which has taken some time coming. Delgado, meanwhile, has found his lack of inches (he is nearly a foot shorter than Richardson) something of a handicap at senior level.

"I definitely think the game can be harder for smaller people," Richardson declared. "But on the other hand taller people take longer to, if you like, grow into their bodies. I remember when I was younger I was very self-conscious about my height, I used to be intimidated by it. But now I use it to my advantage."

Before his sudden introduction to the national media spotlight last weekend, Richardson had been flexing his muscles on the satellite circuit, earning skimpy prize-money but priceless ranking points, which saw him into the top 300 in the world for the first time earlier this year. His most recent success before Crystal Palace was as a quarter-finalist in an ATP Challenger tournament in Lippstadt. But for this week at least the location, and the opportunities are more enticing: Richardson is in Japan attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Open.

"Last weekend was definitely my biggest win," he said. "It should be a huge confidence-booster, and it's up to me how I go on from here. I know I've got to build on it because before now I haven't really achieved all that much."

Richardson is acutely conscious of the gap between Henman and Rusedski and the best of the rest, a tag which he may well inherit. "I am definitely aware of it. But we are all going to have to keep on working hard, and I think I'm doing that. I have proved now that I can play good tennis - I just have to do it more often: consistency is the thing."

With that, he was off out of the canteen (ducking in the doorway) and across the smart acres of Queen's Club to the gym, in pursuit of greater strength and speed, a tall guy with a newly lofty reputation to protect.