Tennis: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Glorious fall at first hurdle for Henman and Rusedski

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The Independent Online
Davis Cup

World Group

at Birmingham

Great Britain v US

SO GREAT was the build-up to the centenary tie between Britain and the United States in Birmingham at Easter that we half expected Fred Perry to turn out in his flannels and give the Yanks a good thrashing.

With the on display in a corner of the National Indoor Arena, the match had the aura of a final rather than a first round contest in the World Group. Grand though the occasion was, the two leading Americans, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, chose not to travel, which proved to be their loss, not their country's.

The Britons, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, realised that whoever played would be a huge challenge. Jim Courier and Todd Martin underlined the point on the opening day. Courier defeated Henman, the British No 1, in five sets; Martin, the American No 1, accounted for Rusedski, in three.

A glance at the records did nothing to restore home confidence. The only time Britain had ever won a tie from 0-2 down was against Germany in Berlin in 1930. Henman and Rusedski at least kept the tie alive by winning Saturday's doubles, defeating Martin and Alex O'Brien in five sets.

To the delight of Sunday's enthusiastic crowd (another 10,000 capacity), and to the 7.8 million enthralled viewers watching BBC2, Henman levelled the match, 2-2, overcoming Todd Martin, who was nursing a strained stomach muscle, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6, after three hours and 17 minutes. Henman spent a total of 10 hours and 44 minutes on court over the three days.

The outcome of the tie was in the hands of the No 2 players, Rusedski and Courier, in the fifth and final match. And it was not decided until the fifth set. Courier won the opening set, breaking serve in the first game, in spite of Rusedski's three aces. Rusedski spent the rest of the evening trying to catch up, which was not easy given the inconsistency of his play: he hit 31 aces, but double-faulted 15 times and was foot- faulted 12 times.

Rusedski continued to press in the final set, but was unable to create an opening. Courier had a break point in the eighth game, but netted a backhand return off a second serve. The match was decided by a Courier counter-punch, a service return to the body that gave Rusedski, at 0-40, no alternative but to play a cramped backhand volley, which landed in the net.

Courier triumphed, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6, after three hours and 47 minutes. "This is the kind of match that gets a lot of kids out wanting to play tennis," the American said. "This is as good as it gets."

JOHN ROBERTS

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