Tennis: Britain close on world elite

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BRITAIN ARE one match away from regaining a place in the World Group of the Davis Cup after a tense, fascinating and occasionally frustrating opening day's play against India.

Tim Henman, the British No 1, survived a difficult opening to his match against India's No 2, Mahesh Bhupathi, to end the day with a victory, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, to add to a marathon effort by Greg Rusedski in overcoming Leander Paes, the Indian No 1.

Success in today's doubles match between Britain's Olympic Games silver- medallists, Neil Broad and Henman, against Paes and Bhupathi, would put the nation back among the world's elite 16 for the first time for six years.

Not that the opening day was a comfortable experience. Previously disturbing background noises, of train hooters and heavy demolition work from beyond the tracks that sounded as if Nottingham was being dismantled and shunted to Derby, merged with the roars of the spectators as Greg Rusedski, struggling for form, staged a characteristic recovery.

The world No 15 prevailed, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 11-9, after three hours and 16 minutes in conditions that were generally dull and chilly with a hint of drizzle in the air. The sun peeped out occasionally to check that the players were still on the court.

At the start of the fifth set, a BBC producer had to drive to Derby to borrow some radio equipment and was back to see the concluding 15 minutes of the match and catch the drama.

Both players had to contend with nerves, and the ending was a sad anti- climax for the Indian team, Paes double-faulting for the 12th time on Rusedski's second match point.

Although this was a cruel way to go, Paes, ranked No 88, acknowledged that cramp in both thighs had left him with little option but to gamble with every shot.

"At that point I was gone," he said. "I had my chances, serving twice for it."

Life on the court has been anything but simple for Rusedski since he recovered from the left ankle injury that cost him a viable challenge at Wimbledon in June. Yesterday's epic was his fourth consecutive five- setter, and the third in which he has come back from match point down.

At the United States Open, Rusedski saved two match points against the South African Wayne Ferreira in the opening round and one against Bohdan Ulihrach, of the Czech Republic, in the second round. His luck ran out against the Dutchman, Jan Siemerink in round three.

Yesterday, Paes had a match point at 6-5, 40-30 when serving for the match for the second time. Rusedski managed to get his backhand to a second serve and the ball clipped the net cord before landing, unplayable, at the Indian's feet. "That's the way it goes in professional tennis," Paes said. "Maybe if we played again tomorrow, it would go my way."

Paes, often as smooth as Rusedski was ragged, dominated the opening set to an embarrassing degree, serving out to love after only 25 minutes. Rusedski appeared to have tuned his first serve and found a semblance of rhythm in the second set only to falter in the third, enabling Paes to display a far more rounded grasp of attacking play.

Before the start of the fourth set, Rusedski took a bathroom break. His opponent made use of the time to have his right arm and shoulder massaged. Although Paes admitted to feeling twinges, chiefly because he found the balls heavy, he emphasised that cramp in the lower body took a greater toll.

Rusedski, deciding that the situation might look brighter if he did, changed his black shirt with grey sleeves for a white one. He took a 3- 0 lead and had a break point for 4-0 before losing his serve for 3-2. The Briton then won 12 points in a row to level the contest.

The bizarre course of the match continued in the fifth set, Rusedski losing his serve in the opening game and failing to convert any of four break points in the second. He halted Paes with a forehand down the line as the Indian served for the match at 5-4, and then saved the match point and won the battle of nerves.

Henman, ranked No 11, found proof in Bhupathi, ranked No 363, that status often counts for little in the Davis Cup. The Briton, who was warned for an audible obscenity during the opening set, required two hours and 20 minutes to defeat an opponent who was always willing to attack.