Tennis: Martin inspired by the team ethic

Davis Cup: American captain fights for fitness, spurred by his service record against best of British
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The Independent Online
IN THE notoriously selfish world of professional tennis Todd Martin is a giant-sized gush of fresh air. So when this 6ft 6in man from Michigan confesses his injury worries for next weekend's Davis Cup tie between Britain and the United States in Birmingham you need to take serious notice, so upright is he in every sense of the word.

The problem of staying upright through the frenzy is what concerns Martin. He suffered stomach muscle damage at the Australian Open in January and exacerbated the injury subsequently. "It hurts when I stretch to serve and sometimes when I fire the serve," he said after a gentle work-out at the Lipton Championships.

"I have been pain-free for most of the last five days but I didn't try to hit any serves. I've been putting my stomach through its paces, throwing medicine balls and a football around. I am neither confident nor pessimistic about my chances. Whether they are great or a sure thing is hard to say right now. I'll have a pretty good idea by the time of the draw on Thursday.

"I don't need to be 100 per cent. I need to be close to it, confident that I'm not going to get halfway through a match and have to shift gears or stop. If those are concerns come the time to play, I probably won't play. If I'm not ready to go I don't think I should be out there because in Jim Courier and Jan-Michael Gambill we have a couple of guys who can represent us just as well as I can."

Martin was praised for his unselfishness in pulling out of the Lipton in order to be fit for Davis Cup duty but he gently brushes the plaudits aside. "That's all fine, but people don't understand. It was pretty selfish of me to play tournaments at Memphis and Indian Wells after I got hurt. Finally, it got to the point where it was necessary to take a break, rather than the choice. Now I am in a bit of an agonising situation."

After Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi declined selection, Martin became the Americans' key component. Ranked 10th in the world, he stands just behind Tim Henman and just ahead of Greg Rusedski, who will carry the burden, in both singles and doubles, for Britain. Martin has a good record against them, leading Rusedski 4-1 and Henman 3-1, but makes light of something many would see fit to crow about. "I think that can be discounted because the majority of wins against both of them came years ago."

The refusal of Sampras and Agassi to represent their country dismays and quite possibly disgusts him but as president of the ATP Players' Council he cushions his comments diplomatically. "I don't really have the closest relationship with either of them and haven't talked with them because I feel awkward."

What Martin clearly does feel in his own case is a zest allied to responsibility when it comes to standing under the Old Glory banner and going out to play for his country. There is nothing more important in his book. "The dates of the Davis Cup and the four Grand Slams are the first things that are written in pen in my diary," he says. "My views about the Davis Cup will never change. Any success you have in the Grand Slams tends to date. You don't have anybody except your coach and family to enjoy that with. But when you have a group of guys who achieve something together, that's something to relish. Times like when we won the Cup in 1995, not just the final in Moscow but the whole year, are awesome. In 15, 20 years those are the things I will look back on, enjoying knowing I was a part of it.

"Being involved in Davis Cup is wonderful, which particular occasion doesn't matter. Being part of the Cup-winning team in 1995 was super, but I really enjoyed myself in Prague and in Milwaukee last year, and they were both losing endeavours. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in the results on paper rather than the result in our minds and hearts because those two occasions were team experiences. The times when you work together and help each other out can bring the greatest reward."

And if that attitude smacks of the sporting baron, Pierre de Coubertin, Martin doesn't mind. "If that's not the right way to go about it, then a lot of people shouldn't be competing because there aren't many who walk off with the prize. And if not many tennis players hold that view I think it's a pity."

Despite sharing with his captain Tom Gullikson and his squad an ignorance of where Birmingham actually is ("I'm assuming it's somewhere north of London"), Martin will be up for this rerun, in the 100th year of the Davis Cup, between the two nations which inaugurated the competition. "Davis Cup is the only thing that has ever given me goosebumps because in every tie there is a buzz right from the kick-off," he said. "It will be a huge occasion but I don't think it's something to get carried away over.

"While the Davis Cup is always time for a gung-ho attitude it is also a time for patience and calm, and those will be my priorities. This is a big anniversary but once you walk on court you are not thinking about that.

"It is a first-round tie, so it is going to be easier to approach in a mild-mannered way. If we win, it won't be time to celebrate quite yet, just exciting because Great Britain is the favourite, not only against us but for the whole competition.

"The most important thing is to enjoy the moment, relishing being in that arena. Our guys can thrive on that, win or lose. You walk away with many things learned, many things to cherish. Personally, if I am not able to play in Birmingham it will be only slightly disappointing unless the team isn't successful. If I sit and watch and the guys pull through and win it, that will be great. It will allow me to sleep very well because I will have made a big choice."

Even though he is on the opposite side of this particular net, Martin is such a friendly, open and dedicated professional that the fingers tend to be crossed in wishing him and his stomach muscles well.