my own goal; Mark Cox

THE former British No1 tennis player recalls the weight of national expectation he carried when he went out to play a Davis Cup semi-final against Ilie Nastase in 1969 and how the pain of defeat stayed with him
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The Independent Online
IN THOSE days the Davis Cup, at least as far as Great Britain was concerned, meant a lot more than it does today. The public interest was certainly greater - you had extensive television coverage and it was a very big part of the tennis scene.

Our match against Romania was effectively a semi-final. If we had won we would have reached the Challenge Round - the final - for the first time since the 1930s and our opponents would, I think, have been the United States. So an enormous amount rested on it.

We had already beaten Brazil and South Africa earlier in the year, as I recall. The South Africa match was at Bristol. It was the time of the anti-apartheid demonstrations and I remember bags of flour being thrown on to the court.

The Romania match was at Wimbledon a few weeks after the championships and we used the No1 Court rather than Centre Court. The Romanians were a bit of an unknown quantity, but the assumption was that we would beat them. We were at home and the grass surface favoured us.

As it turned out, the three days were a disaster for me. I think I lost both my singles and my doubles matches - I've got the knack of being able to obliterate bad experiences from my mind - but we won the other two. So when it came to the final singles, me against Ilie Nastase, the overall score was 2-2 with everything to play for. In terms of pressure, it was about the most extreme experience I can ever remember as a player.

Nastase's career had not really taken off by then. He was just this unruly kid with an outrageous talent who could hit shots from anywhere. He was younger than me - 23 to my 26 - though in terms of tennis experience there probably wasn't much in it. Of course that's not how it seemed to everyone watching, who naturally expected me to win.

I think I won the first set, but then lost the next two. Nastase was like quicksilver. I just remember the ball flashing past me from all directions. Whether it was his brilliance or my paralysis I just don't know.

In those days you had a 10-minute break after the third set and I have this clear vision of going back into the locker-room and Headley Baxter, the team captain, standing in front of me just trying to get me into the right frame of mind. It was no good. It was like a vertical climb for me, and I so desperately wanted to get to the top. But I couldn't. Nastase won it in four sets.

Nobody knew what to say afterwards, but that's partly because life was very different then. Take the media, for example. The journalists were much closer to the players than they are now. We all travelled together everywhere, they seemed to feel much more involved in what happened to you. So to lose like that made it even worse.

With the passage of time it was possible to see the result in better perspective, what with Nastase going on to be a Wimbledon finalist within three years and proving what an incredible player he was.

But the match had a devastating effect at the time. I literally had nightmares about it, and when I wasn't having nightmares I was having sleepless nights. It really sapped my confidence. This went on for quite a few weeks, but I do remember having a good result at the US Open at the end of that season - I think I beat Tom Okker, who had been runner- up the previous year - and that settled me down a bit.