Tennis: England look for the profit with good chance of returns

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ONE HUNDRED years of Davis Cup history landed on the heads of the United States team here yesterday. Fortunately it was only a poster that came unstuck on a wall as the players were being interviewed in the National Indoor Arena, where the tie against Britain in the first round of the World Group starts today.

The American media have tended to play down the significance of the occasion, particularly since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi ruled themselves out. Jim Courier and Todd Martin contributed to the visitors' perceived lack of intensity yesterday.

"For us it's pretty much business as usual," said Courier, America's No 2, who opens the proceedings this afternoon against Tim Henman, the British No 1. "It's a first for Great Britain [in the World Group] in a while; it's not a first for us," added Martin, America's No 1, who plays Greg Rusedski in today's other singles match. "Apart from being the 100th anniversary, this is just a first round for us. We're playing a very good team. I think we're prepared and used to it. We've got to do our job as we do any other week."

The reward for victory over the next three days is a match against either Australia or Zimbabwe in the quarter-finals after Wimbledon. Britain would have to travel, whereas the United States have been granted a home match in Boston to mark the centenary, whether they are in the last eight or involved in a qualifying tie.

It would be a huge mistake to believe that the Americans are as blase as they sometimes sound. They are here to win, and could not care less about absent friends, whether they be players or journalists. "We're here for ourselves, our team and our country," Martin declared passionately. "We're not here for the media."

Martin's determination is underlined by his willingness to play even though he still feels twinges from a stomach muscle he strained during a match against Petr Korda at the Australian Open in January. "I've gone through some fairly bad days, but so far I've felt very good this week," he said. "I'm optimistic for the weekend, but very confident for tomorrow. My only concern right now is how well I recover from Friday."

It was difficult to follow Martin's reasoning, however, when he added that the disability "only affected my serve, so it's not a huge liability". Serving and returning are the crucial elements of indoor tennis, particularly when players with the attacking style of Greg Rusedski and Henman are involved. That is why the Americans were surprised that Britain chose to play the tie on a hard court laid on wood rather than a faster carpet. Courier, describing the court as "surprisingly fair", said he expected a court as close to the speed of grass as possible. "I'm quite pleased with it," he said.

Although Courier's groundstrokes enabled him to win both the French Open and the Australian Open on two occasions and also to rise to No 1 in the world, Rusedski was quick to point out that Courier had been a Wimbledon singles finalist and that Martin ought to have been, given the nature of his collapse after leading his compatriot MaliVai Washington in the 1996 semi-finals.

David Lloyd, the British captain, said he consulted his players and they believed this one suited them best. "I think it's Greg's best surface," Lloyd added. "His serve comes down fast on any surface. You could put down mud and it would be quick. They feel that their serve is good on any surface. This surface is very nice, with a medium-high bounce, which gives them a great chance to return."

The crux could be in Lloyd's final sentence. If Henman and Rusedski have greater confidence in their ability to serve rather than return, this court may prove to be their salvation. The matches are likely to be tight. Henman should be too sharp for Courier, but the Rusedski-Martin match is in the balance. And it will be interesting to see if the Brits shape as well in tomorrow's doubles against Courier and Alex O'Brien (the first contest between the pairs) as they did in winning the Guardian Direct Cup at Battersea in February.

In spite of the imponderables, Britain have a wonderful opportunity to score a memorable victory, although the tension may not be over until the last ball of Sunday's concluding match between Rusedski and Courier.

Martin made an interesting observation, saying that the court would play faster in matches than in practice, because "with all the people in the stands the temperature will be hotter". It certainly will, and the natural enthusiasm a capacity crowd of 9,320 on each of the three days will be amplified by plastic noise-makers handed to children by the Lawn Tennis Association. There will be thousands of rattles, if not Sir Simon Rattle in person.

More tennis, page 27

HOW THE DAVIS CUP RIVALS SHAPE UP

HEAD TO HEAD

Tim Henman v Jim Courier (Courier leads 1-0)

1997 Doha (concrete)............ F Courier 7-5 6-7 6-2

Tim Henman v Todd Martin (Martin leads 3-1)

1994 Queen's (grass)................R32 Martin 6-4 6-4

1996 Wimbledon (grass).......QF Martin 7-6 7-6 6-4

1996 US Open (concrete)..R32 Henman 6-2 7-6 6-4

1998 Stockholm (concrete)....SF Martin 4-6 6-1 6-2

Greg Rusedski v Todd Martin (Martin leads 4-1)

1993 Tokyo (carpet).....................SF Martin 7-6 6-3

1994 Queen's (grass)...........R16 Martin 4-6 6-3 6-4

1995 Memphis (concrete).....QF Martin 6-7 7-5 6-4

1996 Sydney (concrete)...............SF Martin 7-5 7-6

1997 Vienna (carpet).........QF Rusedski 6-1 6-7 6-3

Greg Rusedski v Jim Courier (Courier leads 3-0)

1995 Tokyo (concrete)........R16 Courier 4-6 7-6 6-4

1995 Basle (concrete).................SF Courier 6-4 6-4

1996 Cincinnati (concrete)..R32 Courier 6-7 6-3 6-4

ORDER OF PLAY

Today (1pm)

(GB player first)

Tim Henman v Jim Courier

Greg Rusedski v Todd Martin

Tomorrow (4pm)

Henman and Rusedski v Courier and Alex O'Brien

Sunday (2pm)

Henman v Martin

Rusedski v Courier

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