Tennis: Resilience fires Britain's flying start

DAVIS CUP: Rusedski and Henman give hosts 2-0 lead in relegation play-off as Russia's world No voices contempt for Australia's semi-final venue
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The Independent Online
TIM HENMAN and Greg Rusedski redeemed themselves at the National Indoor Arena yesterday by giving Britain a 2-0 lead against South Africa in the Davis Cup. Victory in the doubles rubber today, or in one of tomorrow's reverse singles, would guarantee that Britain stay in the 16-strong World Group next year.

Rusedski, who lost his two singles rubbers in a thrilling first round match against the United States on the same court at Easter, gave Britain an encouraging start by defeating Neville Godwin, South Africa's No 1 in the absence of Wayne Ferreira, who is on paternal leave, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Henman then mastered Grant Stafford's impressive return of serve, defeating the No 2 South African 6-3, 7-5, 7-6. The 28-year-old Stafford, ranked as high as No 53 in 1994, is now down among the ATP Tour stragglers at No 500. He had lost all five of his previous Davis Cup singles rubbers, but that did not deter him from attacking Henman's serve.

Having overcome Stafford in their Henman three previous matches, Henman knew what to expect. He survived five break points in the opening set, three in the third game, and two more after he had broken for 4-2.

Those spectators who began to breathe more easily after Henman had broken in the opening game of the second set reckoned without Stafford's spirit and Henman's erratic forehand. Stafford broke back immediately, and was not finished even after Henman broke again, for 5-4.

Serving for a two-sets-to-love lead, an edgy Henman found himself at 0-40. He erased the three break points, only to mis-hit a backhand to offer Stafford a fourth opportunity, compounding the situation by hitting a backhand long for 5-5. It was Henman's turn to show resolve. He broke to love and held to 15 to take the set.

Stafford lost a 3-0 lead in the third set, but then recovered from 3- 4 to force the tie-break. Henman took a 3-0 lead, but was pulled back to 3-3, finally edging the shoot-out, 8-6, on his second match point.

"I feel mentally I've put the last six weeks behind me, but physically you have to go out there and do the job," said Henman, the world No 7, whose disappointing form on the American hard courts was compounded by a first-round defeat at the United States Open by the Argentian Guillermo Canas.

There was a carnival atmosphere, similar to the match against the Americans, but without quite as much tension. South Africa's players may be less known than Jim Courier and Todd Martin, but their animated group of supporters will leave Birmingham with an enhanced reputation for fun and fair play. Most colourful was a 21-strong cheerleading contingent seated behind the umpire's chair, faces painted, voices exercised, their chanting accompanied by horn, drum, cymbals and whistles.

David Lloyd, the British captain, cut a patriotic figure in a Union Jack cap, and it was noted that John Curry, the Wimbledon chairman, was seated with royalty, in this case the Duchess of Gloucester.

A prominent British banner was draped in honour of "Greg - The Smiling Assassin", although Rusedski, ranked No 6, neither smiled much nor assassinated effectively during the second set of the opening singles rubber against Neville Godwin, ranked No 198 in the world and making his Davis Cup debut in front of a capacity crowd of 10,100. Although Rusedski hit 16 aces, he squandered more chances than was comfortable, converting only three of 15 break points. Rusedski was slightly hampered by a groin strain, which restricted his movement to shots played wide towards the lines.

Godwin, a compact 5ft 8in, is an enthusiastic serve-volleyer, and although his adventurous play was frequently punished by Rusedski, he never stopped trying to force the contest. The 24-year-old from Johannesburg was was rewarded with his only break of serve, in the opening game of the second set.

Rusedski, who dropped only three points on serve in the first set, played a few loose shots at the start of the second and was passed by a forehand half-volley at 30-40. It seemed that frustration might overtake Rusedski in the third set as Godwin managed to save two break points in the second game and two more in the eighth. The mood of Rusedski's game changed after he secured the first set point at 30-40, created with one of his many impressive cross-court shots and completed with a forehand volley.

Rusedski struck swiftly after Godwin slipped to 0-40 in the fourth game of the fourth set, breaking for 3-1. "I definitely feel a sense of relief," Rusedski said. "It's nice to have the positive feeling of winning a match after that match with Todd Martin [at the US Open] and losing the two singles here in April."