Tennis: Henman tension mars build-up to Davis Cup tie

BRITAIN'S PROSPECTS of staying in the World Group of the Davis Cup were enhanced by the birth of a baby. Marcos Ferreira, 7lb 10oz, has detained his father, Wayne, the South African No 1, at home in Johannesburg, fulfilling a promise he made to his wife, Liesl, in spite of overtures from his national tennis association.

It would be a pity if a spot of childishness were to deflect Britain from the task of defeating a determined but makeshift South African side in the promotion-relegation tie at the National Indoor Arena here over the next three days.

Remembering the wonderful atmosphere generated in the same arena at Easter, when Britain narrowly lost to the United States in the first round, there was a slightly frosty air when Tim Henman met the media yesterday.

This mood had carried over from the US Open after Henman's first-round loss to the Argentinian Guillermo Canas. No critic was more severe on Henman than the player himself. But the 25-year-old from Oxfordshire took exception to suggestions in the press that he and his coach, David Felgate, should seek advice from other coaches on a consultancy basis.

Although Henman, along with his team-mates, Greg Rusedski, Neil Broad and Miles Maclagan, politely co-operated with the media after the draw was made yesterday, Henman was disinclined to engage in one-to-one interviews, although Sue Barker spoke with him on BBC Television. Asked by Barker beforehand if he would mind discussing the speculation concerning Felgate, Henman said she could ask whatever she liked. "David Felgate will always be my coach," he said.

Uneasy relationships between sportsmen and the press are commonplace and are largely irrelevant unless the competitors allow them to affect their form. Acrimony has even been known to act as a spur.

Rusedski also had a bad experience at the US Open, failing to serve out his fourth-round match against the American Todd Martin, who recovered to win from two-sets-to-love down. Rusedski, like Henman, was scathing about his own performance. And the encouraging aspect of yesterday's pre- match gathering was that both players sounded determined to make amends.

"I think in a way you want to remember the disappointments to fire you up," Henman said. "It's a stepping stone. I didn't play well in the States, and this is my first opportunity to put things right."

Rusedski, asked if he had put the Martin match out of his mind, said: "We'll find out this weekend. It was very disappointing for me, because I had the match won. I've just got to re-focus and take the positives into the Davis Cup."

Although individual world rankings are not always the best guide when players represent their country, the South Africans will do well to rise above their standings in the ATP Tour and past form in the Davis Cup. Neville Godwin, their No 1, is ranked No 198 and will make his Davis Cup debut when he plays Rusedski in the opening singles rubber this afternoon.

Grant Stafford, who plays Henman today, is ranked No 500 and has lost his five previous Davis Cup singles matches. He has yet to win a match on the ATP Tour this year.

Henman is Britain's No 1 for the tie, even though Rusedski has overtaken him this week in the world rankings (No 6 to No 7). Davis Cup rules state that rankings at the time of team nominations are the ones that apply.

Whatever the order, Rusedski and Henman ought to give Britain a 2-0 lead today and be good enough to complete the job in the reverse singles on Sunday, even if the South African partnership of David Adams and John- Laffnie de Jager wins tomorrow's doubles rubber.

David Lloyd, Britain's captain, has nominated Henman and the South African- born Neil Broad, the 1996 Olympic Games silver-medallists, but is allowed to change the team up to an hour before the match.

Having invited both Felgate and Rusedski's coach, Sven Groeneveld, to help prepare the players, Lloyd considers that the tie has come at the right time to hasten rehabilitation. "I think, being in a team event, Tim and Greg will help each other," he said.

"Tim has played a lot of matches, and it eventually catches up with you; like a boxer, you get punch-drunk. He needed a break. He's mentally strong, but no matter who you are, you're not only going to go up, you're going to have bad days as well. Greg had a different problem. He had a guy [Martin] where he wanted him, but couldn't finish him. A good match tomorrow with put him right."

Lloyd reiterated that he would resign if Britain lost the tie and returned to the Euro-African Zone. "That would be like Manchester United going from the Premiership to the First Division," he said.

BRITAIN V

SOUTH AFRICA XXXX

Today's singles

(play starts at 2pm)

Greg Rusedski v Neville Godwin

Tim Henman v Grant Stafford

Tomorrow's doubles (3pm)

Neil Broad-Henman v David Adams-John-Laffnie de Jager

Sunday's reverse singles (1pm)

Henman v Godwin

Rusedski v Stafford

HEAD-TO-HEAD

(Britain lead 6-2)

1919 Britain 4 South Africa 1

(Eastbourne)

1924 Britain 4 South Africa 1

(Scarborough)

1929 Britain 5 South Africa 0

(Bournemouth)

1931 Britain 5 South Africa 0 (Eastbourne)

1947 South Africa 4 Britain 1

(Scarborough)

1961 Britain 4 South Africa 1

(Birmingham Priory)

1965 South Africa 3 Britain 2

(Eastbourne)

1969 Britain 3 South Africa 2

(Bristol)

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