Tennis: Court factor comes to surface: Britain face daunting Davis Cup challenge

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The Independent Online
IT WAS against Portugal that Jeremy Bates made his Davis Cup debut at Nottingham in 1985, contributing to a British whitewash by winning his two singles matches and the doubles with Stephen Shaw. 'I just remember they didn't like the grass,' the British No 1 recalled here yesterday.

Unfortunately, British players are averse to clay, or certainly have been since Tony Mottram and Geoff Paish featured in a 5-0 victory on the slower surface in Lisbon in 1949, the only other occasion the nations have met in the competition.

The court factor could have a decisive bearing on whether Tony Pickard's team advance to the draw for the World Cup qualifying round, to be played in September, or are faced with a Euro-African Zone Group 1 relegation play-off against South Africa or Romania in July. Memories of the 3-2 defeat by Hungary on clay in Budapest last May are too painful for progress to be taken for granted.

Bates, 31, will be participating in his 20th tie, whereas Joao Cunha Silva, whom he defeated in the 'dead' rubber at Nottingham nine years ago, has been dropped from the singles.

The 26-year-old from Lisbon took time off to get married last October while Portugal were gaining promotion in the European Cup. His replacement, Emanuel Couto, the 20-year-old national champion, continues as No 2 to the left-handed Nuno Marques, whom Cunha Silva will partner in the doubles against Bates and Mark Petchey.

Couto plays Bates in the second of today's singles rubbers, after Petchey has opened against Marques. Petchey gave an encouraging display against Andre Agassi recently on a slowish rubberised concrete court at the Lipton Championships. This followed a creditable performance against Thomas Muster, one of the world's leading clay-court players, on Mexican clay.

'I think the long-term benefits are going to come when I get back on the faster courts and on the hard courts, where I know I can hold my own with those guys,' Petchey said. 'I'm never going to be a clay-court specialist like Muster.'

Today: N Marques v M Petchey; E Couto v J Bates. Tomorrow: Bates and Petchey v J Cunha Silva and Marques. Sunday: Marques v Bates; Couto v Petchey.