Tennis: Lasting value of epic defeat

Davis Cup: Tennis is the winner as valiant Henman and Rusedski are forced to face up to harsh reality
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S PROSPECTS of winning the Davis Cup (a statement no longer to be greeted with derision) disappeared for the immediate future with the anguished gasps of 9,000 spectators in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, and those of the millions who followed the dramatic marathon between Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and the United States on television.

But the weekend's epic contest will be of lasting value if, as the American hero Jim Courier said: "This is the kind of match that gets a lot of kids out wanting to play tennis tomorrow."

The beauty of Birmingham, where a total of 30,000 people were thrilled by virtually every point played, hour upon hour, was that it was not Wimbledon, the stately home of an elitist sport, but an everyman venue that may inspire youngsters to take up rackets on the nearest available piece of ground, if such oases are still to be found. "I'll be Tim, you be Greg."

Rusedski, though close to tears after losing to Courier, 8-6, in the fifth set of the fifth and final match of the tie, which gave the Americans victory 3-2, encapsulated the significance of the audience. "I think the thing that was nice is that you had such a diverse crowd," he said. "You had a mixture of kids there, from different backgrounds and stuff like that, rather than just having the regular people out there, which I think is important."

What they saw - along with 7.8m viewers, which BBC2 anticipate will be their biggest audience of the week - was proof that no matter how many millions Wimbledon pumps into the Lawn Tennis Association, and no matter how many indoor centres are built, and no matter how many coaching initiatives are tried, great players cannot be manufactured. They need to have the heart to succeed along with the skill and fitness to produce winning shots.

The combination was there in abundance and the 28-year-old Courier, a former world No 1 with four Grand Slam singles titles to his name, exemplified the nature of the contest. "We in the locker-room on our side all agree that this has been the highest level of tennis that we've been a part of at a Davis Cup tie, from start to finish," Courier said. "It was incredibly competitive and, really, just thrilling. This is as good as it gets."

Tom Gullikson, the United States captain, had been unable to persuade Pete Sampras, the world's greatest player, and Andre Agassi, the sport's biggest personality, to play, which was their loss, not his. "These guys," Gullikson said of Courier, Todd Martin and Alex O'Brien, "are the A team, they're America's team; they care, and they're here."

Turning to Courier, Gullikson said: "When he puts his game-face on, nobody has the mental focus that Jim has. Of all the players I've had the honour of sitting next to in Davis Cup, I think Jim mentally is really the best."

"Okay, Gully," a smiling Courier interjected, "you're revelling in the moment too much; don't get carried away."

While the Americans plan for a centenary match against Australia in Boston in July, Britain wait to see what Thursday's draw for the qualifying round brings in September. The eight first-round losers in the World Group join the winners in the Zonal Group 1 competition in a 16-nation draw. The winners qualify for the World Group next year, and the losers participate in Zonal Group 1 competition.

"It's just very sad that after four years we get in that situation," said David Lloyd, the British captain. "I knew it was going to be a 50- 50 call [against the Americans], but we will fight another day, I can guarantee you that. The team are fantastic. They couldn't have done any better, worked any harder or played any better. It was just down to a few points here and there. It was really blood, sweat and tears, and it's sad that one team had to lose. It hurts like hell. And it will hurt more tomorrow than it does now. But we're young in this league."

One of the chief concerns is that Britain may be drawn away to one of the nations who play on slow clay courts, a surface anathema to British players. The irony is that a win against the Americans would have taken Britain to Australia, and the possibility of playing on clay under the roof at Melbourne Park. The Aussies had reasoned that Britain's dread of clay would be a bigger factor than their own preference for grass or concrete.

Henman, who spent a total of 10 hours and 44 minutes on the court, losing to Courier in the opening match, partnering Rusedski to success against Martin and 0'Brien in Saturday's doubles and overcoming the 28-year-old Martin in four sets to level the tie at 2-2 on Sunday, was an animated spectator at the Rusedski-Courier finale.

"At the level we play at now, it's not about taking part, it's about winning and losing," Henman said. "I'm sure a lot of people have had a really amazing weekend watching some of the tennis, but from a playing point of view it's all about winning. If we lose it's been a wasted weekend and I think that's the harsh reality of it."

Rusedski said he felt he let the team down by not winning either of his singles matches. "It's nice to be close, but maybe only in bowls, not in tennis," he said. "I think definitely [Courier's] experience helped, but I should have been able to raise my standards slightly and tried to find a way to win."

It would be an understatement to describe Rusedski's performance against Courier as uneven. Although he hit 31 aces, he double-faulted 15 times and was foot-faulted 12 times in the three hours and 47 minutes. "I didn't let it bother me," Rusedski said. "I went out and did my best with it. I can't remember being foot-faulted that many times, but it didn't come at crucial points when I got broken."

Courier said he was nervous watching Martin play Henman. "I tried not to watch too much," he added. "As my match drew closer and closer, I kind of went more into myself and came out feeling really good. When I walked out on to the court I knew what I had to do and, if Greg could do better, that was going to be fine. I really felt calm, I really felt serene. And that's a good place for me to be in a situation like today, when you have a lot of people trying to get in your head.

"The fact was for most of the match I wasn't sniffing his serve. Eventually I broke through. I had a lot of chances, and he came up with some great stuff. It was mentally a very strong effort for me."

Recrimination tends to follow defeat, however narrow the margin. On this occasion the British game needs to keep the event in perspective. Henman and Rusedski are the sum of the nation's tennis resources at the highest level, and the prospect of aspiring talent joining them, and taking their place sooner or later, can only be helped by the spectacular matches seen in Birmingham.

"It's powerful," Lloyd said. "You can't buy what's happened out there. It was a fantastic atmosphere."