Tennis: Spain mount big threat to holders

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SWEDEN START today's Davis Cup semi-final against Spain in the unfamiliar role of underdogs. The holders, who have been finalists in three of the past four years, are at full strength in Stockholm but will face a powerful Spanish team including Carlos Moya, the World No 5, and the seventh-ranked Alex Corretja. Both are in a rich vein of form.

It used to be easy to run the Spanish clay-court armada aground - just lay down a fast carpet and put a roof over it. But with Moya, the French Open winner, having reached the semi-finals of the United States Open and Corretja having enjoyed his best hard court season, Spain cannot be regarded as one-surface wonders.

"We are not just clay court specialists," Manuel Santana, the Spanish captain, said. "Carlos Moya, in particular, has shown he can adapt quickly to any surface and so I am sure we can do well. The surface is very fast but we are optimistic."

If there is a weak link in the Spanish line-up it could be the doubles pairing of Julian Alonso and Javier Sanchez. Spain have not won a Davis Cup doubles rubber for more than two years - by contrast, Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti have made Davis Cup Saturdays a time for celebration in Sweden. Bjorkman, the World No 13 who almost single-handedly pulled Sweden through their quarter-final against Germany by winning three matches, said: "Spain are a strong team but at home with the crowd behind you, you always want to play your best."

Carl-Axel Hageskog, the Sweden captain, has called up the 23-year-old Thomas Johansson, the United States Open quarter-finalist, for his first taste of Davis Cup action. Johansson meets Carlos Moya in the second singles match, and Hageskog said: "He's ready for the big moment."

Johansson agreed. "Yes, I'm ready," he said. "I'm very happy to be one of the singles players. I like the indoor court. It's getting faster and faster. The low bounce is important for us."

At the age of 10, Johansson was a ball boy when Stefan Edberg clinched Sweden's 1988 quarter-final victory over Czechoslovakia at Norrkoping, not too far away from his home town of Linkoping.

"That's when I saw a Davis Cup match live for the first time," Johansson recalled. "After that I followed almost every Davis Cup final. It's going to be a very special feeling to play Spain in Stockholm."