Tennis: Britain's firepower worries US

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL Championships may not be a conveyor belt of great players, but it produces memorable days for the media. There was Andrew Castle's poll tax protest during the 1990 final, and Tim Henman's lucrative dash to Hanover a year ago.

Yesterday, Mark Hilton, a 17-year-old from Chester, had barely finished his interview after advancing to the quarter-finals with a wild card when reporters were diverted to a trans-Atlantic telephone conference linking David Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, with his American counterpart, Tom Gullikson.

Lloyd had arrived from a promotional launch of next April's first round World Group tie against the United States at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, where Henman released 100 red, white and blue balloons and carted the marvellous sterling silver punchbowl trophy and its hefty two plinths around on a trolley. "It's unlucky to touch it until you win it," he said.

Gullikson is having difficulty tugging Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi towards Birmingham for the centenary match, given that neither could be bothered turning out for September's losing semi-final against Italy in Milwaukee.

"Pete and Andre obviously have a fairly big event coming up next week in Hanover," Gullikson said, "but I'm going to visit each of them personally in December and talk to them specifically about the whole year, the centennial, what it really means, and what they mean to it, and then start recruiting for this tie."

Sampras traced some of his injury problems in the past to Davis Cup matches. He was also disappointed about the response in America to his courageous performance in the 1995 victory against Russia in the final in Moscow.

Agassi has been at loggerheads with Harry Marmion, the USTA president, since a perceived snub at a dinner to mark the opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open in New York in 1997. Marmion forgot to mention Agassi's name, and Agassi did not take part in the parade of champions which followed.

Their relationship deteriorated further when Marmion decided to play the semi-final against Italy in Milwaukee. Agassi said that he would only play on the West Coast, because the tie clashed with his annual charity show in Las Vegas.

Lloyd, describing the situation as "sad", said he could not understand anybody in any sport not wanting to play for their country. "As a Davis Cup captain, I would struggle to pick that guy again," he said. "If it was a personal argument with the captain, and he was refusing to play under that captain, that might be a different matter. Perhaps the captain should go.

"But if it was a case of saying, `I will not play for Britain', you should not pick him again. Sampras doesn't realise why he's not a national hero when he steps out on the street. Maybe that's the reason."

Gullikson, speaking from his home in Palm Coast, Florida, was about to play a round of golf with his neighbour, Todd Martin, the third-ranked American, who was in the team beaten by Italy. "We'll discuss our strategy," Gullikson joked.

Martin made his feelings clear during the Paris Open earlier this month. "The fact we play in Great Britain, and Tim and Greg have been playing so well over the last few years, might inspire a couple of our better players to play," he said. "And if that's the case, that's super, because that's the way the event should be. That's what the Davis Cup deserves. It's not necessarily what our US team deserves. But if it was good enough for the Lavers and the Budges and all the greats of tennis, it should be good enough for our best players now."

Peter Fleming, who had great moments on the court partnering John McEnroe, whose passion for the Davis Cup occasionally ran amok, was an interested observer at the Birmimgham launch. "If Sampras is here, I would say the Americans are favourites," Fleming said. "Without him, I'm not so sure."

The inaugural Davis Cup match between the US and the British Isles in Boston was organised in 1899 and played in 1900. While not suggesting the Americans are running scared, the US Tennis Association have persuaded the International Tennis Federation to allow them to play a home tie in Boston for the "centennial bash" next July, whether or not they earn it by winning in Birmingham.

Young Hilton may emerge to play a part in Lloyd's future Davis Cup plans - and, heavens knows, the captain needs every able body he can find to support Henman and Rusedski.

The pride of Mickle Trafford, on the outskirts of Chester, Hilton plays a hearty game to compensate for his lack of height (5ft 7in). He recovered from 0-5 in a second set tie-break yesterday to defeat Colin Bennett, from Ross-on-Wye, 7-5, 7-6.

"The boy is amazing" said Leighton Alfred, Hilton's coach. "He showed what a great temperament he has. He's a real fighter."

Hilton's quarter-final opponent is the 20-year-old Martin Lee, from Sussex, who who reigned for a time as world junior No 1. Lee beat Yorkshire's Gary Henderson, 6-2, 6-1.

Today's semi-finals in the women's singles will be contested by the top seeds: Sam Smith (No 1) versus Louise Latimer (No 4) and Julie Pullin (No 2) versus Jo Ward (No 3).