Tennis: Delgado in at the Davis Cup deep end

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David Lloyd, in contrast to his cricketing namesake, is unlikely to be calling up the phrase "we murdered 'em" in relation to a match against Zimbabwe. The Davis Cup captain is simply relieved to be able to send out a team.

What promised to be a weekend of optimism at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, with expectations of Britain taking another step towards the World Group, appeared doom-laden after injuries eliminated Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Vilified though our cricketers are, they at least number more than two at the highest level, although, to be fair, few tennis nations could afford to compete without their top player, let alone both of them.

Lloyd, in the circumstances, has chosen Jamie Delgado, 20, and Andrew Richardson, 23, to make their debut against the Zimbabwean brothers Black, Byron and Wayne.

Delgado, Britain's No 1 for the occasion on the strength of a world ranking of No 260, opens the tie at noon today against Wayne Black, Zimbabwe's No 2, who is ranked No 271 on the ATP Tour computer. Richardson, No 266 in the world, then plays the experienced Byron Black, ranked No 46.

Should Britain fail to win either of the opening singles rubbers, the doubles partnership of Neil Broad (an Olympic silver medallist with Henman) and Mark Petchey will have to defeat the brothers Black tomorrow in order to keep the tie alive for Sunday's reverse singles - Delgado v Byron Black followed by Richardson v Wayne Black.

Victory would take Britain into the promotion round for the World Group in September. Defeat would bring a trip to Ukraine in July, the week after Wimbledon, for a Euro/African Zone Group I tie.

Delgado, 5ft 8in from Warwickshire, is a product of the David Lloyd Slater Squad who came to prominence as a junior, winning the 14 and under singles title at the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1991. He has yet to make an impact on the main Tour.

Richardson, a 6ft 7in left-hander from Lincolnshire, is a former pupil at the Rover LTA School at Bisham Abbey who has shown encouraging signs of graduating from the satellite and challenger circuits.

Given the option of selecting the 26-year-old Petchey (ranked No 196) for the singles, Lloyd decided that the Essex player's poor record in the competition represented more of a gamble than the blooding of Delgado and Richardson.

"This is a great opportunity for Jamie and Andrew to show us what they can do," Lloyd said. "I am certain they will not let us down, although I know this is probably the biggest match of their careers.''

Delgado marvelled at the difference a week has made. "I was not in the team to start with, and now I'm playing No 1," he said. "It's bound to be a difficult contest, with Tim and Greg unable to play, but anything can happen in the Davis Cup. I've played team competitions before, but never at this level, so I shall be a little bit nervous and excited, but I think I shall be all right. I spoke to Tim on the phone only this morning. He said, 'Just go for it, you have nothing to lose'.''

Richardson acknowledged that he had never played a more important match. "I don't think I shall be too nervous," he added, "because I'm playing the best I've ever played in recent weeks.''

The Crystal Palace's 2,300 capacity is sold out today and Sunday, but a number of seats are available for tomorrow's doubles. The venue was chosen partly because several other suitable indoor arenas were already booked but also because Lloyd has fond memories of Britain's victory there against Australia which took them to the final in 1978. Happy days.