Tennis : Zimbabwe seize the advantage

By John Roberts at Crystal Palace
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The Independent Online
The salmon hue of the carpet court here began to take on an ominous appearance for Britain's Davis Cup team yesterday. The narrowest of defeats by Zimbabwe in the doubles shortened the nation's prospects of competing in the World Group promotion round in September and instead nudged them towards the Euro-African danger zone of the slow red clay of Ukraine in July.

Neil Broad and Mark Petchey were unable to build on Andrew Richardson's heroic effort in levelling the tie 1-1 on Friday. Britain's doubles partnership fell to Zimbabwe's brothers Black, Byron and Wayne, whose skills and continuity proved marginally superior on the day, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, both rehabilitating after injuries, could only watch, shout encouragement and hope that their understudies, Richardson and Jamie Delgado, will be able to salvage the position in today's reverse singles.

The weight of responsibility lands first on the shoulders of Delgado, who faces Byron Black in a duel of the No 1 players, having lost to Wayne in four sets in the opening singles. Should the 20-year-old succeed against an opponent ranked 214 places above him at No 46, Richardson will have an opportunity to continue against Wayne Black where he left off against Byron in Friday's five-set triumph.

Broad, who won a silver medal with Henman in the doubles at the Atlanta Olympics, and Petchey, whose poor Davis Cup singles record prompted the captain David Lloyd to recruit Delgado along with Richardson, strove to sustain the momentum. They began smartly enough, winning the opening set by breaking Wayne Black's serve in the fourth game and saving two break points in the fifth and three more in the seventh. Broad and Petchey lost serve as the second set flashed by, the Zimbabweans not even pushed to deuce.

Byron Black gained the initiative for Zimbabwe, breaking Broad with a forehand drive after Petchey had missed a volley to offer a break point in the third game of the third set. The British pair were unable to make an impression on their opponents' serves for the rest of the set.

At this stage the Zimbabwe supporters in a 2,300-capacity crowd began to celebrate, sensing victory. Their joy was premature. Wayne Black lost his serve for 1-3 in the fourth set, and though Broad was broken back straight away, a tight and tense set moved into a tie-break.

Two errors by Broad and a missed volley by Petchey put Britain 1-3 down, but they recovered, helped by Byron Black, who double-faulted when serving at 5-4. He made amends with a a service winner to create the first match point at 6-5, which was snatched away when Petchey hit down the centre- line with his second serve. Wayne Black then netted a forehand to give Britain a set point, which Broad clinched, 8-6, with a volley after Petchey had returned Wayne Black's serve.

Zimbabwe steadied themselves for the deciding set and were rewarded with a break for 3-1 on Petchey's serve, the Essex player netting a backhand volley. Britain had an opportunity to break back for 3-4 with Wayne Black serving, but Petchey fired wide with an attempted forehand pass.

Although Britain saved two further match points, Byron Black made no mistake on the fourth, after three hours 14 minutes, hitting a service winner. Neither the British players nor their captain were impressed with a couple of line calls earlier in the game, but their protests were ignored by the umpire.

"That was a tremendous match to watch," said Lloyd. "There were just a couple of points in it here and there. We've got to win the next two but there's still a lot to play for."

His sentiments were echoed by Petchey. "It was disappointing to lose this match after Andrew's great win yesterday, but it's not over yet," he said.

Byron Black was clearly relieved. "It would have been tough to have lost another five-setter. Yesterday's [against Richardson] had so many ups and downs that it was tough to finish that match and come out and play well. But we did that. The adrenalin kicks in and helps you forget about the fatigue. I tried to relax the pressure on us by saying, 'I think we can win both singles tomorrow regardless.' I think the pressure is in their court now."