Tennis: Davis Cup: Rusedski suffers final agony

United States triumph after Courier wins the last match of an epic encounter
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IT WAS so good to have had the Davis Cup gleaming in a corner of a British arena, and Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski could take some reflected glory from the sterling silver bowl and the plaques bearing the names of their illustrious predecessors, particularly in the 1930s. A sensational match against the United States went to the fifth set of the fifth rubber last night and Rusedski need feel no remorse that he was unable to deny the admirable Jim Courier, who edged through, 8-6.

The Americans may not have known much about Birmingham before they arrived here for this first-round tie in the World Group, but the relief that spread through their ranks after the umpire announced Courier's win, 6- 4, 6-7, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6, would have been repeated in all the strongholds of the game in the United States - especially Boston, where the centenary of the competition will now be marked with a second-round tie against Australia in July.

There is bound to be disappointment that Britain's weekend of high endeavour was unable to produce a victory. It is some consolation, however, to have played such a vital part in an occasion that proved to be the best possible example of the heart and soul of the sport.

Rusedski's performance was an extraordinary mixture of excellence and error: 31 aces, 15 double-faults and 12 foot-faults in the three hours and 47 minutes. But statistics cannot convey the emotion that went into virtually every shot played. Rusedski's tear-stained face when he arrived for his interview told that. "Tim did his job, but I feel I let the team down by not winning one of my singles," he said.

David Lloyd, the British captain, interjected. "He's not let anybody down," he said. "He can be proud."

Once the first set went Courier's way, after a break in the opening game (in spite of three Rusedski aces), the British No 2 spent the rest of the match trying to catch up, willed by the magnificent crowd. Although he pressed Courier in the final set, Rusedski was unable to create an opportunity to break him. The American had a break point in the eighth game, only to net a backhand return off a second serve, and finally cracked Rusedski to love with a return to the body. Rusedski netted a cramped backhand volley.

Courier's glory followed a test of endurance between the No 1 players. Britain's Tim Henman pushed his time on court to 10 hours 44 minutes for the three days in defeating Todd Martin, who was nursing a strained stomach muscle, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6.

"Three hours 17 minutes is a little bit short for me," Henman said in jest to the 9,320 spectators, adding with refreshing honesty, "I think [the match] turned on a questionable call. You've got to take them when they come your way."

The call in question was a backhand volley from Martin that would have taken him to 4-3, 40-15 after he had just broken Henman in the second set. The ball appeared to land on the line, but was called wide. Martin, clearly unsettled by the decision, overhit his next backhand volley over the baseline to offer a break point, and Henman converted it with a backhand down to line for 4-4.

"Walking off the court, I hated to feel like I wanted to make an excuse for myself," Martin said. "It was my fault that I lost my concentration, but it would have been a lot easier to keep my concentration if that call had been made properly. I would not expect Tim to give me the point in this situation - in a singles match in a tournament somewhere, but not in Davis Cup. It is possible he could have seen it wrong, and that I could have seen it wrong, and the lineslady could have seen it correct; but I don't think so."

After controlling events until that juncture, Martin found himself in a contest. He double-faulted to 15-40 in the 12th game, Henman taking the second of the set points, returning a second serve so well that Martin could do no more than hit his backhand into the net. The match was one hour and 37 minutes old, and Henman's revival was under way, backed by even louder walls of sound than before. "[The spectators] were keeping me in it in the first two sets when he was dominating," Henman said.

Once Henman levelled the match, the usually affable Martin found himself at odds with the spectators more often than was good for his game. Bouncing the ball while waiting for noises off court to subside tended to irritate the excited crowd, and a ball Martin hit at the advertising hoarding at the back of the court came close to striking a line judge.

Henman won the opening three games of the third set, but Martin broke back for 2-3 on his fourth break point of the fifth game. The American was to save three break points in the sixth game, but double-faulted to 0-40 to give Henman the opening he needed at 4-3, the Briton punishing a second serve.

Martin's condition was not improved when he tumbled while attempting to intercept a backhand volley which gave Henman his second set point. The American was unable to keep a backhand in play. In spite of his set- backs, Martin seemed certain to force the match into a fifth set after breaking for 5-3 in the fourth.

Even though Henman recovered the break in the next game, with a splendid forehand drive to the corner, Martin had a set point with Henman serving at 5-6. The Briton, who had double-faulted on deuce, salvaged the position with an angled forehand volley, and the crowd breathed again before moving to the edge of their seats for the tie-break. Henman eased the tension by winning the first four points. Martin recovered one of the mini-breaks, for 2-4, but the shoot-out then proceeded with serve. He took a 6-4 lead with his 18th ace, delivered at 120 mph, and was able to convert the first match point, Martin returning serve with a backhand into the net.

It was a memorable weekend for the 24-year-old from Oxford starting with the disappointment of a losing the opening match to Courier in five sets on Friday, then partnering Rusedski to a five sets victory in Saturday's doubles.

Bunny Austin, 92, part of the only British team to win a tie from 0-2, against Germany at London's Queen's Club on 24 April 1930, said he watched every ball on television. He thought Henman's and Rusedski's doubles win against Martin and Alex O'Brien was wonderful. "The way they played was absolutely beautiful."

n In an early shock Sweden, the holders, fell to a first-round exit at the hands of Slovakia in front of their own fans in Trollhattan yesterday. The man who caused the damage was the Slovak No 1, Karol Kucera, who played in three matches at the weekend and completed victory last night by beating Thomas Enqvist in four sets.

Davis Cup round-up, page 11