Great Britain are on the brink of being shunted out of the Davis Cup World Group in to the semi-obscurity of the Euro-African Zone. Morocco need to win one of the remaining three rubbers of the qualifying round tie here, starting with the doubles match this afternoon, to stay in the élite group of 16 nations.
Hicham Arazi defeated a disconsolate Tim Henman, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, and Younes El Aynaoui held off a spirited Greg Rusedski, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.
Henman's defeat was compounded by a neck spasm, which raised a question mark about his further participation in the tie. "It's not an injury exactly," Henman said, "and I'm optimistic. I'll see how I feel in the morning. Hicham was the better player today, but that was my most disappointing performance in the Davis Cup, and I want to show the character to come back tomorrow."
He added: "My neck seized up a bit up on Wednesday, probably because of the extra strengthening work I had been doing in the gym as part of my plan to serve more aggressively. It felt better this morning. I thought the adrenaline from playing the match would take care of it, but the added tension made it worse."
The 150 British supporters were in the majority in the Complex Sportif Al Amal at the start of play, the crowd slowly building to about 400 by the time Henman was struggling against Arazi, with less than 1,000 present to hail the Moroccan No 2's win after two hours 31 minutes.
"It's a long way to Casablanca, but we're here for you," the Brits sang. But Henman was unable to reciprocate in the opening two sets as Arazi out-played him. With his neck stiffening, the British No 1 was unable to serve well enough to deter his opponent - a common problem of late - and was dazzled by the left-handed Arazi's brilliant shot-making.
"The lack of a crowd today should have been a positive for us," Henman said. "But I didn't get myself in the right playing situation. You have to be very tough mentally to stay in rallies, and I was making too many unforced errors."
Consequently Henman lost the first four games and did not gain a point against serve until Arazi double-faulted at 3-0, 40-0. The klaxon that signalled Henman's first winning game, after he had held serve for 4-1, was not meant to sound as ironic as it did.
Serving for the set at 5-2, Arazi had conceded only two points on serve, but the Moroccan began to show signs of nerves. He was unable to convert either of two set points and Henman converted his first break point, for 5-3. Having saved a set point in the next game, Henman was disappointed to let the set go, Arazi securing his fourth set point after 44 minutes.
Henman's lack of mobility and damaged confidence was clear, and in the third game of the second set he mishit a forehand with an open court beckoning. That put him 15-40 down. After erasing the first break point with an ace, he then looped a forehand over the baseline.
A call to prayers from a nearby minaret began as Henman prepared to deliver a second serve at 3-5, 40-15. Arazi flashed a backhand pass to win the point, but Henman held. Arazi proceeded to serve the set out, after which Henman called for the physio, Mark Bender, to massage his ailing neck.
Henman's pride was also hurting. "Having worked so hard and hit the ball so well in practice, I was frustrated by the poor performance I was putting in and I was trying to get myself fired up," he said.
When Henman lost his serve at the start of the third set, it seemed that Rusedski would soon be on court to defend Britain's honour in the second singles contest. But Henman began to display belief in his game, forcing Arazi to save two break points at 2-1 and cracking him for 3-3.
With Arazi showing signs of tiring, and striking the ball less cleanly than before, Henman was able to create two set points. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Arazi fell on his back on the baseline and was relieved to see Henman's shot drop long beside where he lay. The crisis in that game was not over. Arazi netted a backhand to give Henman advantage, only for the Briton to return a second serve long.
Henman gained his second opportunity, at 6-5, 30-30, with a backhand drop-shot. Arazi smashed the set point away. Although Henman recovered from 2-4 to 4-4 in the tie-break, he then double-faulted to 4-5. Arazi served out the last two points to win, 7-4.
On the eve of the tie, Rusedski had acknowledged that a Henman win was vital to put pressure on El Aynaoui. Now the pressure was firmly on the shoulders of the British No 2. Rusedski responded by winning the opening set. After breaking for 5-3, Rusedski slipped to 0-30. He won the next point at the net, levelled to 30-30 with an ace off a second serve, hit a service winner for 40-30 and converted the set point with another ace.
El Aynaoui broke in the second game of the second set en route to levelling the match at 1-1. Well though Rusedski continued to play in the third set, El Aynaoui's break for 3-2 was enough to nudge him ahead.
Rusedski's tenacity enabled him to save four break points in the fifth game of the fourth set. He then broke for 4-2 and held to love for 5-2. El Aynaoui, serving in the eighth game, saved the first set point with an ace. Rusedski then served out the set with an angled backhand volley.
The Brits prepared to celebrate, only to see Rusedski lose his serve in the second game of the final set, El Aynaoui hitting a forehand return down the line on break point. El Aynaoui broke again for 5-1 before serving out the match.Reuse content