Lloyd takes on the world

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SINCE IT was India who put the seal on Britain's relegation from the World Group of the Davis Cup six years ago, it seems only fitting that we should do the same to them next weekend.

Victory on the outdoor hard courts of the Nottingham Tennis Centre would formalise Britain's return to the top level of the event and consign India to zonal competition, where Britain have languished since being beaten 4-1 in New Delhi in 1992. The team then was Jeremy Bates, Mark Petchey, Chris Wilkinson and Neil Broad.

Now, of course, hopes rest on the big boomers who have come into the British team since then, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, backed by Miles Maclagan and, still, Wilkinson and Broad. The odds are that the captain, David Lloyd, will ask the top two to shoulder the whole job, doubles included, as they did against Ukraine in Kiev in July 1997 and in Newcastle in April, despite the fact that Broad is a very respectable 33 in the doubles rankings.

The doubles, so often the key match in Davis Cup, is the one India are favourites to win because Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are the world's No 3 team. But if Britain can seize singles control on Friday's opening day, as they should, the loss of the doubles would rank lower on the seismic scale.

Which is why Lloyd, after some thought, spurned grass - on which the Indians play at home - and opted for hard courts. "We would probably have played nine teams out of ten on grass," he said. "I felt the Indians could get close to us on grass. Cement is a surface both Tim and Greg like and it's a surface on which the better player will win. You don't get duff players winning the Australian and US Opens but you do sometimes get people who really aren't as good as they should be winning Wimbledon."

Lloyd's hopes to achieve the goal he set when taking on the job in 1995 rest with Henman and Rusedski, their fitness and their form. Should either suffer a mishap between now and Friday the tie would be thrown wide open. Rusedski was to be seen practising on the hard courts of the US Open almost a week after he lost in the tournament and he presumably turned down the current clay court event in Bournemouth in order to speed his return to form after ankle injury by practising instead on hard courts.

Henman opted for a defence of the title he won 12 months back in Tashkent, a move which Lloyd backs as long as his No 1 doesn't overdo things." I think he plays too much," he said. "But he is an exceptional guy, he would be bored if he is not doing something. He has to kick a football around the changing-room, has to hit a ball against the wall, has to swing a golf club in the restaurant. That's Tim. Maybe he has got it right but from the injury point of view you've got to be careful." You certainly have. At home, with Henman and Rusedski leading the charge, Lloyd fancies Britain to beat any other country, the United States included. Without one or both, Britain would be pushed to put away moderate nations like India, who they have played three times since the Second World War, winning 3-2 at Harrogate and Manchester in 1948 and 1955 and losing in New Delhi in 1992.

Paes is by some distance India's leading player, a 25-year-old from Calcutta at present ranked 84th, his highest ever. Just before the US Open Paes beat the world No 1 Pete Sampras 6-3 6-4 in New Haven, a tournament where he got as far as the quarter-finals by seeing off other big names like Marc Rosset and Sergi Bruguera.

Paes, a former world No 1 junior, lost in the first round of all three Grand Slam singles he played this year - Australia, Wimbledon and the US - but immediately after Wimbledon he won the grass court tournament at Newport, Rhode Island, his first title on the ATP Tour, dropping only one set in five matches. As Lloyd warns, "We mustn't take this tie for granted. It's not an easy match."

The difficulty will be most severe when Paes joins forces with Bhupathi, a 24-year-old from Madras, in the doubles. At present 362 in the singles rankings, Bhupathi has never been higher than 232 but this six-footer is sixth in the world at doubles. The Indian pair reached the final of last year's World Doubles Championships and also won six ATP Tour titles. In this year's Grand Slams they were semi-finalists at the Australian, French and US Opens. Strangely, they fell early on grass, going out in Wimbledon's second round.

Bob "Nails" Carmichael, the grizzled Australian who coaches Paes, says "They are good mates and that is a very important factor. They have very good confidence in each other. They complement each other. Mahesh returns very well and has a big serve, while Leander is quick around the net and has great hands."

Paes, who has been a Davis Cup stalwart since his debut as a 17-year- old in 1990, teamed up with Bhupathi in 1995. "We knew from the start we were a good team," says Paes, who won a singles bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. "We realised we could repeat our Davis Cup successes on the Tour week after week and we have proved that Indians can be world- beaters, too, in tennis."

Nottingham will be as tough a mission as they have embarked on. They are in danger of relegation from the World Group because of a 4-1 defeat by Italy in the first round. Henman and Rusedski are miles in front of any Italian in the rankings, so the scene is set for promotion celebrations and then the wait for the 1999 draw in London in October.