Tennis: Future bleak beyond Bates

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Stefan Edberg's coach reflects on failure with Britain's Davis Cup team

THE world of Tony Pickard continues to swing from the highs of coaching Stefan Edberg to the lows of attempting to raise the British Davis Cup team. While Edberg was winning a tournament in Madrid on Sunday, Pickard was in the captain's chair here as Britain lost a Euro/African Zone tie against Hungary, 3-2, a result which further diminished their dwindling status.

Pickard's greatest achievement has been to improve Edberg's body language to the extent that the Swede no longer is prone to casting his head down when things go against him. Six Grand Slam titles, including two Wimbledon championships, is testimony to the success of their association. British heads are less easy to lift on account of being buried in the court so often.

It cannot be easy for Pickard to switch from maintaining the sublime Edberg's confidence and well-being on a regular basis to brief encounters with journeymen a couple of times each year. He has reflected upon the credibility of his part-time job with the Lawn Tennis Association before, and will reconsider the position when the three-year arrangement ends next March.

'They might fire me]' he said, attempting to lighten the mood after the latest defeat. 'I thought long and hard before I took the job. I knew what I was taking on. It's a situation where if conditions had been perfect then I should have been with the players for a month beforehand. But that isn't the case, is it? I try to keep as up to date and watch as many matches as I can when they play in England, but it's a little bit few and far between.'

Even so, he had come to Hungary confident of a win against lower- ranked opponents which would have guaranteed Britain a play-off for a place in the World Group. But as usual, too much was expected of Jeremy Bates. In the first of his three matches, the British No 1 was unable to prevent a 2-0 deficit after the opening day's singles.

Though Bates then partnered Mark Petchey to victory in Saturday's doubles and performed magnificently to level the tie after the first of Sunday's reverse singles, Chris Wilkinson was then beaten.

'When you look at the last match, Wilkinson had 12 break points in two sets and the only one he converted was a double-fault,' Pickard said. 'But you can't blame Wilkinson. It's his first live Davis Cup tie. In practice he played unbelievably well, but when they called time . . . You've got to go at the ball. The ball can't hurt you. You hurt the ball. But he's played like that all his life.'

'Jeremy's basically in a class on his own, isn't he? He's two classes better than the rest of them. And we don't have anybody strong enough, on this stuff (clay) anyway. On the faster courts I think we do . . . Bates has had the Davis Cup hung on his peg for a hell of a long time.'

The problem is, Bates will be 31 in June and there is little sign of a talent to share the load with him now and eventually take his place. 'Right now there isn't,' Pickard said, 'but I believe in Mark Petchey. If he got his act together I think Petchey could become a sidekick.'

Of the younger prospects, James Baily, 18, is experiencing difficulty gaining a computer ranking, having won the junior title at the Australian Open. 'One thing I'm disappointed in is the way young Baily is performing,' Pickard said. 'I thought they may have taken him to the hard courts, but he's been on everything else but.'

Was it a handicap that most of the squad in Hungary had been playing on concrete rather than clay? 'The boys out in the Far East were playing matches every week, doubles matches and singles matches. You cannot replace that. Wilkinson was playing on clay, but he only had two matches. The others had more than that . . . From our point of view, the players have got to go where they can get into tournaments. It's not like an Edberg, where you can pick and choose where you go.' You need great talent for that.