Flying start for Henman is crucial for Morocco tie

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The Independent Online

According to the broad-smiling Younes El Aynaoui, when the Davis Cup qualifying round tie between Morocco and Britain gets under way in the Complexe Sportif Al Amal here this morning, "there may be more English people in the stadium".

El Aynaoui will be one of the home crowd, cheering on his compatriot, Hicham Arazi, against Tim Henman from a seat on the Moroccan team bench while waiting to get to grips with Greg Rusedski in the second of the opening day's singles rubbers. By then, whatever El Aynaoui says about the lack of promotional activity ahead of the tie, the number of locals will have grown, attracted by the partisan din.

The noise is likely to unsettle the experienced Henman and Rusedski less than the shifting sand beneath their feet, clay court tennis being the name of the game here and the scourge of British teams wherever they encounter the sport's slowest surface.

Except, that is, in Ecuador in 2001, when Rusedski raised his game to beat Nicolas Lapentti and inspire victory in a similar promotion/relegation tussle. It was the second part of a daft sequence of matches, Ecuador's men of clay having prevailed on the lawn of Wimbledon's Court One a year before.

Since Ecuador, Rusedski's only appearance for Britain was in the home defeat by Sweden in Birmingham last year. Injury caused him to miss the subsequent qualifying round win against Thailand in Birmingham, a Henman tour de force.

Henman, who accepted that challenge in spite of a nagging shoulder injury, then joined Rusedski in recovering from surgery as Australia swept aside a makeshift British team in the first round of the World Cup in Sydney last February.

Henman and Rusedski arrived here 10 days ago after a season of woe relieved only by Rusedski's pre-Wimbledon spurt in Nottingham and Henman's run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals followed by his success in Washington DC, where he defeated Andy Roddick in the final.

Roddick reversed that result against Henman in the first round of the United States Open, where Rusedski fell flat in his opening match against the Frenchman Gregory Carraz. "That was pathetic," Rusedski recalled yesterday. "I had no fighting spirit from the first point to the last."

Henman, ranked No 4 in the world in July 2002, is down to No 40. Rusedski, who also reached No 4 in October 1997, has slumped to No 108. Although it is said that rankings count for little in Davis Cup matches, the Moroccans are pleased to see El Aynaoui at No 19 and Arazi at No 66.

The results of previous matches between players can also be overestimated when it comes to team competition, as Henman pointed out yesterday when asked about his 8-2 record in matches against Arazi and 2-0 lead against El Aynaoui. Arazi's two wins were on clay, in Monte Carlo in 2001 and Hamburg in 1998, Henman having prevailed in their other clay court match in Hamburg in 2000. Henman's successes against El Aynaoui were both on rubberised concrete.

Rusedski won his only match against El Aynaoui on rubberised concrete in the first round of the 2001 US Open. Rusedski, who has not played Arazi on clay before, has won four of their five matches.

Stamina is an important factor on clay, particularly in Davis Cup matches played over the best of five sets. Henman and Rusedski were upbeat about the prospect yesterday, assuring questioners that they were ready to play three matches in three days.

As a precaution, Roger Taylor, the Great Britain captain, has Miles Maclagan on stand-by for the doubles and the 19-year-old Alex Bogdanovic ready to step in if needed on Sunday.

Henman and Rusedski said that the hard training they had done in the heat here in the past 10 days had been therapeutic as well as strength-building. "We're looking to get off to a good start," Henman said. "Hicham is a clever player, but he can be fragile at times and I've got to try and frustrate him."

Rusedski added: "If Tim can get us off to a win, it will put pressure on Younes. I think both Tim and I are much better than we have been. The last 10 days have been excellent for me. Hopefully, I can bring that into the tie. It's good to be in a team environment. I hope it will be a turning point for me."

The Britons said the court was faster than they had expected. "It's much, much better than Ecuador," Henman said. "I'm really looking forward to it. The teams are so evenly matched and we're expecting to play in an exciting atmosphere."

Henman's opening match is the key to a tie that could finish 3-2 either way as the teams battle for a place in the sun.

DAVIS CUP (Casablanca): MOROCCO v GREAT BRITAIN: Today's singles (play begins 12.00 BST): H Arazi v T Henman; Y El Aynaoui v G Rusedski. Tomorrow's doubles (14.00): Arazi/El Aynaoui v Henman/Rusedski. Sunday's singles (12.00): El Aynaoui v Henman; Arazi v Rusedski.