Tennis: Britain become top dogs in Cup

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BRITAIN ARE developing into top dogs against the United States for the Davis Cup tie in Birmingham on the Easter weekend at such a rapid rate that it is starting to become slightly ominous for the home side. Yesterday Tom Gullikson, the United States captain, even pleaded with the American media to give wholehearted support to his team. So much for the gung-ho spirit.

Gullikson's rallying call was made under clear blue skies on the the porch of the art deco Clevelander restaurant on Ocean Drive, South Beach, Miami. Last month a customer was murdered at the Clevelander, which is down the road from where Gianni Versace drank his last coffee.

The Stars and Stripes and Union Jack were draped side by side on the Clevelander's fence, in front of a table adorned by a miniature of Dwight Davis's silver punchbowl. Franklin D Roosevelt was in his first term in the White House last time Britain defeated America in the competition, Fred Perry leading a 5-0 whitewash in the Challenge Round at Wimbledon in 1935. But Gullikson was taking no chances, especially since Pete Sampras had started a chorus of "Americans don't care about Davis Cup" when declaring himself unavailable, along with Andre Agassi.

After confirming that Jan-Michael Gambill, he of the matinee idol looks, and Alex O'Brien, a doubles specialist, had been selected for his squad along with the seasoned Jim Courier and Todd Martin, Gullikson said: "My closing comments are for the American media. I'd really like everybody to really get behind the team in this tie. Be really positive. That would be a great thing for you to do." His words prompted a round of applause.

Gullikson was asked how the squad's morale was standing up, given the controversy over Sampras and Agassi, plus the revelation that the team's doctor, George Fareed, had lost his job. "I think sometimes controversy can act as a positive," the captain said. "It can make you stronger, increase your resolve. Jan-Michael and Alex are committed to the Davis Cup. Everybody has their own reasons for playing or for not being available to play. I think playing for your country should always be your highest priority."

John McEnroe, who made his Davis Cup singles debut when Britain last played the United States, in the final at Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, California, in 1978, and was always passionate about playing for his country - outrageously so at times - has been making noises from the senior tour about being good enough still to play doubles for the team. Gullikson was asked if had taken McEnroe seriously as a contender. "Not really," he said.

Adopting a light-hearted approach, Gullikson said: "The other day I was having a coffee with Tim Henman and I was trying to talk him into playing the tie here at the Lipton site, because the weather is great and the food is great here. But he didn't buy into it."

Turning towards Gambill and O'Brien, Gullikson said: "We just happened to have caught a couple of stragglers walking down South Beach." He added that both players were raring to go against "England" and realised that "the English" are very difficult opponents.

As for playing in Birmingham, Gullikson said the squad would be setting off next Saturday evening, and would be landing "somewhere in England". He was not sure if there were flights to Birmingham. It might be advisable for the United States Tennis Association to remind supporters planning to travel that this Birmingham is not the one in Alabama.

Britain's captain, David Lloyd, has been in the game long enough to know it would be unwise to go into the tie with a false sense of security. Indeed, Lloyd's sense of security is anything but false. He has been positive about the match ever since the draw was made, and will take necessary stock of the opposition.

Statistics favour the Americans, with the head-to-head record against the combined force of the opposition giving them a 13-2 advantage. Martin leads Henman 3-1 and Greg Rusedski 4-1; Gambill leads Henman 2-0, but has yet to play Rusedski; Courier leads Henman 1-0 and leads Rusedski 3-0.

The one lingering doubt for Gullikson concerns Martin's fitness. Having been troubled by a strained stomach muscle since the Australian Open in January, the tall serve-volleyer decided to give the Lipton Championships here a miss in order to rest for Birmingham. "Todd's doing quite well," Gullikson said. "He's had a good week of working out his problems."

He added: "I can guarantee we are going to go over there and we are going to work very hard. We are going to have some fun; and we are all going to represent the United States of America very well."