Tennis: Petchey's slip starts the slide: An unexpected defeat by a rising Romanian relegates Britain's Davis Cup team to the nation's lowest standing

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THE Davis Cup relegation play-off against Romania went to the wire, which unfortunately remained entwined around British necks. Mark Petchey was unable to raise his game to subdue Razvan Sabau in the fifth set of the fifth rubber, and the 17-year- old sensation of the tie dispatched Britain to the Third Division of the premier men's team competition.

It is the nation's lowest point since the Davis Cup was inaugurated in 1900, five consecutive defeats having resulted in a slide from the World Group to Group Two of the Euro-African Zone. Whisper it, but there is a Group Three, though Bill Knight absorbed the disappointment of losing on his debut as Britain's captain to predict that, 'In 1996, we'll be back up there, because the fact is our players are improving.'

Not as impressively, perhaps, as Sabau. Last year's Wimbledon junior champion made nonsense of his world ranking (No 787), recovering from two sets and 1-5 down to save three match points before defeating Jeremy Bates (No 76) in the opening rubber on Friday, and holding his nerve to compete the job against Petchey (No 88) yesterday, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2.

The tie took two dramatic twists after Petchey's four-set defeat by Andrei Pavel had left Britain 0-2 on the opening day, turning first on a Romanian ankle (Dinu Pescariu's injury in the fourth set of the doubles) and then on a British thigh.

Petchey, leading Sabau by two sets to one, appeared likely to capitalise on Bates's win against Pavel, 6-3, 7-6,

6-2, which had levelled the tie, only to lose his momentum after being injured when slipping during the fifth game of the fourth set.

With the score at 2-2, Sabau saved a break point with a winning serve and then wrong-footed his opponent with a backhand pass. Petchey took a three-minute time out for treatment, but was unable to convert either of two more break points on returning. He then lost his own serve for 2-4, and though he showed no further sign of being hampered by the injury, the contest rapidly ran away from him.

Knight, to his credit, praised the quality of the young man who inflicted most of the damage. 'Mark was up two sets to one almost against the run of play,' he said. 'The resilience of Sabau really showed what a good player he is. He was playing way above his ranking.'

Bates needed no reminding of that, though the 32-year- old British No 1 was helped back to his feet on Saturday by the 19-year-old Tim Henman, who replaced the dejected Petchey in Saturday's doubles and contributed hugely on his first appearance to a 6-2, 6-7, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 win against George Cosac and Pescariu.

The British pair were already up a break in the fourth set when Pescariu injured his right ankle, though whether they would have gone on to win against two fit opponents is a matter for speculation.

'I got a bit tight in the third set, thinking about what happened on Friday,' Bates said. 'Having got us into the mess on the first day, I had to do my best yesterday and today to get us out of it - and put 'Petch' knee deep in it.'

Bates, who has never contested a 'live' fifth rubber in a decade of Davis Cup appearances, could only guess at the pressure on Petchey as the Essex man endeavoured in vain to become the first player to haul a British team to victory from 0-2 down since Harold Lee against Germany at London's Queen's Club in 1930.