Tennis: Peak time for Switzerland's odd couple: John Roberts reports on the contrasting characters entrusted with upholding a nation's honour in the Davis Cup final this weekend

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THEY make an odd couple, the methodical Jakob Hlasek and the eccentric Marc Rosset, upon whose shoulders the Davis Cup hopes of Switzerland ride in Texas this weekend. Swiss hopes? Should not that be Swiss slopes?

Unlikely finalists, having peaked for the first time in their history, the Swiss could hardly find the Americans in a meaner mood. Memories of the defeat by the inspired French duo, Henri Leconte and Guy Forget, in last year's final in Lyon still rankle, and John McEnroe, a self-designated captain-in-waiting, has been saying for 12 months that attitudes would have been different if he had been there to kick derriere.

McEnroe was preoccupied yesterday with his marital problems, missing a squad press conference in Fort Worth and later issuing a statement which confirmed that he and his wife Tatum were experiencing difficulties which they are trying to resolve.

It may be remembered that a mellow McEnroe led the singing of 'Happy Birthday' to Hlasek on the court at Wembley in 1989. The pair had just won the doubles title. The following year, Hlasek made an even happier return, defeating Michael Chang, the defending champion, to win the Wembley singles title on the last occasion that tennis was played at the arena.

Hlasek, who speaks seven languages and is known as 'Kuba', has reason to have fond memories of Wembley. He won his first grand prix singles title there in 1988, a success upon which he capitalised in Johannesburg to qualify for the year-end Masters in New York. This was a remarkable achievement by a player who had missed four months of the season after being injured in a car crash in January.

Having arrived at Madison Square Garden for the Masters, Hlasek proceeded to win his three round-robin matches, against Ivan Lendl, Tim Mayotte and Andre Agassi, before losing to Boris Becker in the semi-finals.

While most Swiss have French or German connections, Hlasek, 28, originated in Czechoslovakia. He was four years old when the Soviet tanks arrived and his parents decided that the family should flee Prague and settle in Zurich. Hlasek did not play tennis until he was 15, having been persuaded that it was a safer option than ice hockey.

A sturdy, clean-cut 6ft 2in, Hlasek has been unable to consolidate a place in the world top 10 (he rose to No 7 in 1989), but continues to be an opponent to avoid, encouraged by his coach, the Austrian, Gunther Bresnik, who prepared Boris Becker for his triumph in the ATP Tour Championship. Hlasek is now ranked No 36, one spot below Rosset.

Though perceived as the straight-man, Hlasek readily joined Guy Forget in having his head shaven when he and the Frenchman won the inaugural ATP Tour Doubles Championship in 1990. Hlasek and Rosset are ranked No 10 as a doubles team, and their understanding has been crucial in Switzerland's advance to the final with wins against the Netherlands, France and Brazil. They did not drop a set in whitewashing Brazil in the semi-final in Geneva.

Rosset, a gangling 6ft 5in, dislikes newspapers referring to him as the 'Swiss Alp', though he turned out to be the nation's tallest story at the Barcelona Olympics. Rosset was the only Swiss competitor in any sport to return from the Games with a gold medal.

His triumph came as a surprise, not least to Rosset. For one thing, he said at the outset that he was looking forward to the Olympics chiefly for the opportunity of seeing the track and field athletes in action. For another, he declared that he had indulged in a fair amount of relaxation prior to arriving in Barcelona.

Technique was also a consideration. Rosset, 22, boasts the fastest serve on the tour (134 mph, timed at Wimbledon last year), but the slow Catalan clay did not seem an ideal surface for him to inflict maximum damage.

This is not to imply that Rosset lacks the capability to pose a threat on clay. Some of his best results have been achieved on the surface, including his initial tour success, in his home town, Geneva, in 1989. The fact is, others in Barcelona were expected to be both better equipped for the courts and more likely to cope with the heat. The favourites wilted and the unseeded Rosset prevailed, hitting 34 aces in defeating the 16th seed, Jordi Arrese, a local player, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 8-6, in a final which lasted more than five hours.

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the aiport in Geneva to welcome the hero home, Rosset's parents among the throng. From the moment he appeared at the door of the aircraft, Rosset was inundated by requests for a glimpse of his medal. The clamour continued as he made his way through the concourse and out into the street.

Eventually, growing weary of the attention, he asked his father to fetch the car. When it arrived, Rosset clambered into the front passanger seat in great haste, and the car sped away. But not for long. Rosset barely had time to heave a sigh of relief before his father informed him that they would have to return to the airport. 'We have left mother behind,' he said.

(Photographs omitted)

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