David Adams and John-Laffnie de Jager, who is as tall as his name is long, defeated Tim Henman and Chris Broad 6-3 7-6 6-4 in two hours 13minutes. But Henman should wrap up victory and guarantee Britain an extended place in next year's tennis version of the Premiership when he plays Neville Godwin in the first of this afternoon's singles.
A sell-out crowd of 10,100 in the National Indoor Arena, an indoor attendance record for British tennis, got raucously behind the home pair, but they were backing the lesser of the doubles thoroughbreds. Adams and de Jager are the world's third-ranked combination and this year have reached four finals, winning one. Henman and Broad, despite being the 1996 Olympic silver medallists, have yet to win in three Davis Cup outings, having lost against Slovakia in 1995 and India last year.
The 32-year-old Broad, who earns his living on the circuit from doubles and was born in South Africa, earned a rare outing for his adopted nation because Greg Rusedski was nursing a groin strain. While Broad was thoroughly at home in the lightning exchanges of volleys (although a touch uncertain at times on his serve), Henman too frequently looked what he is - a good singles player who dips into doubles only rarely. The South Africans were an impressive pair, from their matching shirts to their near-flawless teamwork, which had the small but boisterous group of their supporters roaring encouragement.
After a pre-match ceremony rich in hype and reminiscent of a Las Vegas big fight, with the theme music of the Rolling Stone's "Start Me Up", the South Africans were the ones who responded to that musical urging to more noticeable effect. They had a break point in the third game, rescued by Henman's vicious forehand volley which struck Adams on the body. Britain missed three break chances in the next games on Adams's serve, profligacy which was to prove expensive since Henman promptly dropped serve to love with a couple of double faults.
From there, South Africa commanded the rest of the opening set, getting to set point courtesy of a British mix-up which showed their lack of combination when Broad left a slow-bouncing ball to Henman, who failed to move for it until too late. The British supporters were quietened by what they recognised as a sense of the inevitable, as South Africa went one set up after 38 minutes.
The second set brought an altogether more determined effort by the British, culminating in a set point, which they missed at 5-4. Things did not look too bright when Broad dropped serve in the third game as he netted a backhand volley, but the British pair bounced back at once, breaking de Jager, whose tennis occasionally tended towards the lumbering. The inspiration for this was none other than Rusedski, seated with the British squad at courtside. He leapt to his feet and urged the crowd to get behind their men when they reached break point. The crowd obliged and Henman obliged, too, driving an unreturnable forehand volley straight at Adams.
As the match moved towards a tiebreak there were a pair of break points for each team, with Adams looking easily the most accomplished operator. He was in sharp form, too, having won the doubles title at Bournemouth last week in harness with that one-man American tempest, Jeff Tarango.
Though fought at an intense level, the contest had been free of rancour until the opening point of the tiebreak. Henman served it and, when the ball came back at him, he struck a forehand half-volley down the sideline which was called out by the line judge. The Portuguese umpire Jorge Dias overruled, to the vociferous dismay of the South Africans, whose captain, Craig Tiley came out of his chair like a champagne cork under pressure to harangue Dias. TV showed the ball well out and Dias diplomatically ordered the point replayed. Henman concurred. "My shot was out. Justice was done."
Justice was also done in the tie-break, which Adams and de Jager won by seven points to four after leading all the way. That tie-break featured the shot of the match, a stunning forehand service return down the line from Adams, who summed up what had made the difference with the comment "We hit a lot of really fast returns. We really focused on what we do best - tight, strong doubles."
There were hopes that Britain might extend the match beyond straight sets when de Jager double-faulted to drop serve in the third game of the third set. But by now the South Africans were clearly dominant and, from a 3-1 lead, Britain won only one more game. Henman was broken to love and then, as he served to keep the home nation in contention, he dropped serve again, squandering a 40-15 lead with two forehand volleys into the net and then looking on in dismay as Broad offered South Africa their first match point with a forehand volley which sailed long. No further invitation was needed, as de Jager walloped a forehand service return match-winner.
There were no complaints from Britain. "Their win was not unexpected," said Henman. "We came in as underdogs. We would have loved to finish it off today but we will definitely settle for a 2-1 lead after two days. A live match tomorrow is what I need. I relish it."Reuse content