Tennis / Davis Cup: Hero Henman is no chicken: Britons show their fighting qualities in the doubles after a single-minded start gives Romania the edge

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN's sports selectors are often decried for their conservatism, but that is not an accusation you could level at Bill Knight. Captaining a Great Britain Davis Cup team facing humiliation on an unprecedented scale, he took a gamble by playing the untried 19-year-old Tim Henman in the crucial doubles against Romania here yesterday and was afterwards able to sit back with an expression as glowing as the tennis his young charge had produced.

Trailing 2-0 in a match they had to win to avoid relegation into the Euro/African Zone Group Two - effectively the competition's third division, and not a level Britain have ever experienced - Henman and Jeremy Bates came through some bad times to pull the score back to 2-1 with an enervating, five-set victory over Dinu Pescariu and George Cosac. Britain still need to win the remaining two singles today, but at least now they have some confidence back.

Knight's explanation for the change was more self-evident than revealing. 'That was the best chance we had of winning the tie,' he said. The first Henman knew about it was on Friday night, and he 'jumped at' the opportunity. That said much about his confidence.

Henman could hardly have been given a more testing debut. He was a member of the team that lost in Portugal in March, the result that put the pressure on Britain in this fixture, but did not play. He almost certainly would not have played here either had it not been for the disasters of Friday when Bates and Mark Petchey lost the opening two singles to leave Knight feeling the time had come for drastic action.

That it worked was due to the eagerness with which Henman took his chance, the strength he drew from the more experienced Bates, and, it must be said, the slice of luck Britain enjoyed midway through the fourth set when Pescariu injured his ankle and was severely hindered from then on. That helped Bates and Henman to a 6-2 6-7 5-7 6-2 6-1 victory that delighted the crowd.

Henman deserved his chance. Born and brought up in Oxford, he is a graduate of the David Lloyd school and has risen from 774 to 163 in the world rankings in a year and a half, performing particularly well in the Far East. He is a rangy 6ft 2in and tennis wisdom has it that he needs to put on more weight before he can really start to fulfil his potential. But with his flowing and stylish tennis, he already has a lot to offer.

Henman has been Bates's practice partner for much of the summer, and had looked in excellent shape before the match. Enjoying their respective roles of young tiro and senior pro, the pair have developed a good relationship, based on a mixture of rivalry and joshing.

Henman made the best possible start to his Davis Cup career by winning his opening service game to love. He was positive and decisive, serving with power and accuracy and hitting crisp volleys. There was not a trace of nervousness in his play - indeed, this was a young man prepared to take charge, calling the balls long for his partner and filling the role Knight had cast him in with aplomb.

Henman played the dominant role as Britain took the first set 6-2, hitting a superb passing shot to set up the chance for the first break and a 4-2 lead. Britain then went on to win four games on the trot and take control. But so they had on Friday.

The Romanians started playing a tighter game as everything went with serve in the second set. Britain led 5-3 in the tie-break on Henman's serve, but in a manner which has become nightmarishly familiar could not press home their advantage. Bates, whose form once again was deserting him, volleyed long without any real excuse to allow the Romanians to draw level. There was little between the pairings in the third set - that is until the points that mattered, Henman losing his serve at 5-6 to give the Romanians a two sets to one lead. Britain were now staring into the abyss, but managed not to succumb to vertigo.

They were already a break up in the fourth set when, with Bates serving at 3-2, Pescariu slid into the covers at the side of the court and twisted his ankle. The chunky Romanian could not put any weight on it after that, but it was to Britain's credit that they maintained concentration and pressure.

The high-point of a splendid all-round performance by Henman came with Cosac serving at 1-3 and 15-30 in the fifth. Three times he engineered prodigious recovery shots under an onslaught of smashes from the Romanian, keeping alive a rally which ended when the Cosac netted. You sensed then that the Romanians' spirit was broken. Bates ended the match without dropping his serve, and Henman only did so once.

It was impressive stuff, but the fact is that Britain will still be up against it today when Bates takes on Andrei Pavel and Petchey meets Razvan Sabau. Much then rests on how Petchey recovers from his defeat on Friday and being dropped yesterday. Bates's match is first on, and if he does not win then it all becomes academic. But even though it is 64 years since Britain recovered from 2-0 down to win a Davis Cup tie, that is not a thought anyone in the British camp is prepared to contemplate now.

(Photograph omitted)

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