Tennis: Britain soar into top flight

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The Independent Online
ON ONE of the most wonderful cold, grey, damp days British tennis has enjoyed for ages, the Davis Cup team defeated India and qualified for the World Group after six years' absence.

Now the nation has two players capable of making the elite take notice. Only two, mind you, and unless reinforcements can be inspired to support Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, the campaign in the top 16 might founder.

With time enough to ponder the task ahead after the draw for next year's competition is made on 8 October, we must celebrate the team's renaissance since Rusedski's arrival from Canada in 1995 coincided with the emergence of Henman and David Lloyd's appointment as the captain.

Henman had the distinction of securing victory against India yesterday with a forehand volley that dispelled fears that the inclement weather would close in and disrupt the proceedings. "I haven't practised very much with sponges before," Henman joked. Nor had the 24-year-old from Oxford had to contend with a Davis Cup opponent as gifted, intelligent and persistent as Leander Paes, the Indian No 1.

Even the closing point involved a brisk, exciting, inventive exchange of shots as Paes, supposedly drained of energy, aching in the right shoulder and favouring a bruised left heel, fought to extend his opponent. The watching Rusedski knew all about Paes' skill and determination, having saved a match point before winning the opening match in five sets on Friday.

Henman prevailed in a third set tie-break, 7-5, to win, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6, after two hours and three minutes, giving Britain a decisive 3-1 lead. "It was definitely the best Davis Cup match I've played," Henman said.

"It was a high pressure situation, playing an opponent against whom you didn't know what to expect. I wouldn't say there was that much wrong with him, except maybe a slightly bruised heel. What he was trying to do was a pretty good idea. Serving without much pace and walking as if he can't move could have been a distraction, but I was not going to be distracted."

Henman, having held serve to lead 5-2 after three consecutive breaks in the opening set, met with a crisis when serving for the set at 5-3. Paes unnerved Henman with a spectacular forehand down the line for 30- 30 and then pounced on the Briton's second serves before breaking him with a high backhand volley. The Indian then missed two volleys as Henman steadied his game to win the tie-break, 7-3, after 49 minutes.

The second set took less than half an hour, Henman breaking for 2-1 and holding his concentration well apart from one waver when, after winning 10 consecutive points, he was taken from 40-0 to deuce.

Two sets to the good, it seemed that only the weather could come between Henman and a flourishing win - at which point Paes showed more of the resourcefulness that had taken Rusedski to the brink and was the undoing of Henman and Neil Broad in Saturday's splendid doubles win with Mahesh Bhupathi, 7-6, 6-3, 7-6.

Paes broke for 2-0 in the third set, helped by two Henman double-faults, and although the Briton recovered immediately, the Indian continued to be hard to shake off. If Paes was on his last legs, any number of the competitors in the Nottingham marathon would have traded with him.

With Paes leading, 4-3 on serve, drizzle prompted the referee, Gabriel Mato, of Spain, to inspect the rubberised-concrete court. He decided that play could continue, although Henman would have accepted a rain delay. "It's easy for the referee to say it's all right," Henman said, "because he's not the one who's going to run around and slip on the lines."

Fortunately, there were no mishaps in that respect. Paes went on to lead 3-1 and 4-3 in the tie-break, Henman drawing level with a smash and reaching match point when the Indian missed a backhand.

Rusedski withdrew from the dead rubber, complaining of a sore heel. Hampshire's Chris Wilkinson, substituting, was defeated by Bhupathi, 6-3, 6-4, to make the final score 3-2.

Henman, while delighting in the promotion, did not overlook the potential manning problems. "Both Greg and I believe that on a given day we can beat anybody," he said. "But we do need more players. It should be a great incentive for the others to fill the gaps now we're in the premier league."

Having played an important part in raising the perception of British tennis, Henman made an interesting observation. "The crowd all three days have been great," be said, "but you only have to look at the average age, and it ain't too young. We'll have to start giving more tickets to the schools, so they can watch tennis and get involved."

For once, however, it is encouraging to report that Britain's players are not in the zone.

Results, Digest, page 23