Davis Cup pressure falls on Hewitt

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The Independent Online

Boasting assets that include Lleyton Hewitt, home-crowd support and a grass court tailor-grown to meet their requirements, Australia are undisputed favourites to win this weekend's Davis Cup final in Melbourne. But a formidable French team are thirsting to avenge defeat by the Antipodeans two years ago.

That final, played in Nice on France's favoured clay, was an object lesson in the danger posed by visiting underdogs. Todd Woodbridge, a member of the 1999 Australian team, warned this week: "If we're not on our guard, they could easily beat us." Woodbridge will pair with Wayne Arthurs for Saturday's doubles match, while Patrick Rafter – fitness permitting – will join Hewitt to open Australia's singles campaign tomorrow.

With Rafter an unpredictable quantity because of tendinitis and a recurring shoulder injury, the pressure will be on Hewitt, the US Open champion and newly crowned world No 1. Rafter, who plans to take an indefinite break after Melbourne, will not play unless he is certain that he can last five sets.

The French captain, Guy Forget, will finalise his team shortly before today's draw, but Sebastien Grosjean and Nicolas Escude are already pencilled in to play the singles. Cedric Pioline and Fabrice Santoro are the most likely doubles mix, but Arnaud Clement – an Australian Open finalist – has impressed Forget on the practice courts.

Australia hold a 10-3 edge over France in Davis Cup matches, and enter the tie with 17 wins in 23 finals played at home. Their most infamous weapon this time is a portable grass court that was grown in rural Victoria, transported by truck to Melbourne in 160 "modules" and laid over the Rebound Ace surface at the Rod Laver Arena.

The seams are invisible, and the Australians praised the court – said to be a world first – after training on it this week. "I thought it came up well. It played great," said Rafter. The team coach, Wally Masur, called it "a spectacular innovation".

The French were polite about it, too, although their feelings about grass are said to echo those of the 1960s Spanish player, Manuel Santana, who said: "Grass is for cows, not tennis."

Rafter is an outstanding serve-and-volleyer, while Arthurs excels on grass and Hewitt is dangerous on any surface. However, Grosjean won his first ATP singles title on grass, at Nottingham in 2000, and has since enjoyed a spectacular ascent to his present world No 6 ranking.

Ivanisevic's new service

The Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic, has begun his compulsory Croatian army service and says his country can relax now that he is part of its military defence.

"Now that I am in the army, you can all sleep peacefully," Ivanisevic said yesterday near his coastal home town of Split, where he is due to start a two-week military training course.

The 30-year-old Ivanisevic, who beat Patrick Rafter to win his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July, will be officially sworn in on 15 December in Zagreb as a member of a sports squad. He will be allowed to train, travel and compete in tournaments during his six-month service.

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