Tennis: Britain's day of doom as Bates fails: The home team capitulate to pair of novice Romanian Davis Cup players with world rankings far below them

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TOWARDS the end of one of the most dismal days in British tennis history, a female spectator sat with a plastic bag over her head. This would have provided an apt commentary on the suffocating events, except on closer inspection it transpired that she had made a hole through which to breathe.

Great Britain 0, Romania 2 means that unless Britain win the three remaining rubbers, starting with this afternoon's doubles, they will slide into Group Two of the Euro-African Zone of the Davis Cup; in short, oblivion.

Bill Knight, making his debut as Britain's captain, must have been as bemused as the woman in the improvised sun hat. And the theory that home advantage and the grass surface would see Britain through to a comfortable victory proved groundless. Jeremy Bates and Mark Petchey evaporated against lower ranked, less experienced opponents.

Bates's capitulation was astonishing. The British No 1, who reached the last 16 at Wimbledon and defeated Boris Becker at Queen's Club last month, led Razvan Sabau by two sets and 5-1 and had three match points. The 17-year-old Romanian, ranked 711 places below Bates at No 787 in the world, recovered to win, 0-6, 3-6, 7- 6, 6-2, 6-2.

The onus was then transferred to Petchey, who had defeated Michael Stich in South Africa in March and was a semi-finalist only last week in an ATP Tour grass- court event at Newport, Rhode Island. The British No 2 from Essex was outplayed, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, by the aggressive Andrei Pavel, ranked 224 places below him at No 312.

Bates conceded only five points on his serve in the opening set, three of which were double-faults, and was two sets up after only 49 minutes. Sabau, last year's junior Wimbledon champion, continued to play like a loser in the third set until facing defeat at 1-5, 15-30.

The Romanian held serve and then broke Bates when the Briton first served for the match at 5-2, capitalising on the 11th of 13 double-faults. Sabau saved the three match points on his own serve, producing a backhand down the line, a backhand lob and a smash. Bates served for the match a second time, at 5-4, but won only two points, and Sabau went on to complete a run of four consecutive games, leaving the Briton to force the tie-break.

By this time, Sabau had forged sufficient confidence to dominate. He won the shoot-out, 7-3, and swept through the remaining two sets, raising his arms in triumph 74 minutes after saving the first match point.

Bates complained, with some justification, about certain line calls given against him, specifically on vital points during the games in which he served for the match. Even allowing for such frustrations, there was ample time for a competitor of his experience to have disabused the opposition.

With the match apparently becoming a lost cause for Sabau in the third set, the Romanian gave the impression that he was about to give up, rushing from one changeover as if eager for the execution. This deceived the spectators, and also his opponent. 'I thought he wasn't trying,' Bates said. 'Then, after just keeping the ball in play, he starting hitting passing shots at random.'

Sabau had decided there was nothing to lose. 'I told myself to just go for it,' he said, 'and everything worked. Maybe Jeremy was too sure, too confident beacause I am so young and he has so much experience.'

Knight, asked how it was that two players who had succeded against highly rated players so recently had failed against lowly ranked opposition, said: 'I don't think I can explain it. I don't think I want to explain it.' But he remains optimistic. 'I think we still can go into the final three matches as favourites,' he said. 'One day's loss doesn't make you a bad player. We'll pick ourselves up and go for it tomorrow and go for it on Sunday.' A British team have not lifted themselves to that extent since recovering from 2-0 down to defeat Germany at Queen's Club in 1930.

Cedric Pioline revived France's hopes for a Davis Cup win over Sweden yesterday when he beat Henrik Holm in straight sets to tie their quarter-final encounter 1-1. Pioline, France's top-ranked player, beat the powerful Swede

6-4, 6-3, 7-5 with a solid base-line game in this, his first Davis Cup competition. Earlier, Sweden's No 1, Stefan Edberg, beat Arnaud Boetsch 6-3, 6-2, 7-6. Boetsch had no answer to Edberg's aggressive serve-and-volley game.

(Photograph omitted)