If nicknames are anything to go by, Britain stand a good chance of winning their Davis Cup tie against Sweden in Birmingham this week. Sweden's top player, the new Australian Open champion, Thomas Johansson, is known in his homeland as Dopey, after the big-eared member of Snow White's seven dwarves.
Those sticky-out ears did not get in the way of a career-best success for Johansson in Melbourne last Sunday, though the most fascinating aspect of what promises to be a riveting three days at a sold-out National Indoor Arena will be the clash between Tim Henman, the man most of Britain were expecting to win the Australian, and Dopey, who did win it.
Henman holds a 3-0 record against Johansson, all the victories having been gained on hard courts. Whether Henman will make it four straight will depend, to a large extent, on whether the Swede is still flying high after becoming a Grand Slam champion or suffers a let-down after all the adulation bestowed on him by a delighted, albeit surprised, home nation.
Henman, after all, has lost just one match this year, that fourth-round exit to Jonas Bjorkman. It is a measure of the task facing Britain that Bjorkman, an ace mimic who is currently doing a marvellous impersonation of Johansson with the aid of ears taped at right angles to the head, is likely to feature only as a doubles player in Birmingham.
No surprise, then, that Britain's captain, Roger Taylor, concedes the Swedes are favourites to win this World Group first-round tie. Sweden are the most successful nation in the competition's modern era, having won the trophy six times since the establishment of an élite World Group in 1981. In those 21 years since, the Swedes have reached at least the semi-final stage 16 times and finished runners-up on five occasions.
The unassuming Carl-Axel Hageskog, who has captained them to three finals and two wins since taking over in 1996, is confident but admits: "I expect this to be a very tight match." He also highlighted a crucial factor in their ongoing Davis Cup success: "It is very important that you have seven or eight players competing for places." Quite so. Hageskog was able to shrug off the absence of the former world No 2, Magnus Norman, recovering from a hip operation, and Andreas Vinciguerra (broken finger).
In contrast, the recent revival in Britain's fortunes has been down to just two people, Henman and Greg Rusedski. No disrespect to the other members of the British team, Martin Lee and Jamie Delgado, but they will feature only if either of the top two suffers injury or illness. Taylor has already confirmed Henman and Rusedski as doubles partners as well as singles standard bearers, so they are guaranteed a wearying weekend.
Sweden are expected to feature Johansson and Thomas Enqvist in singles, while Bjorkman, arguably the world's leading doubles exponent, will team with Magnus Larsson. The singles statistics, however, are by no means bleak. In addition to his 100 per cent record against Johansson, Henman is 2-3 against Enqvist, having won his last two encounters against the 2000 Australian Open runner-up. Rusedski seems to lap up Enqvist's power game, having won five of their seven matches (four of them indoors), though he is 2-4 against Johansson.
As home nation, Britain have opted for a taraflex surface, described by Taylor as "medium fast, not lightning fast". This, he clearly believes, will help us more than them. "We are capable of winning," Taylor insisted, "but Sweden have an incredible Davis Cup record, so there is a barrier to break through. Johansson's win in Australia will make the British public very aware of just how tough this tie is."
After the heroics of such as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, the Swedish nation had tended to switch off when it came to tennis. Now that interest has been spectacularly revived, as a call to Edberg in Sweden confirmed. The last Swede to win a Grand Slam (US Open 1992) reported: "Johansson's victory has been covered big-time here. He is still in the papers every day, which tells you how big it is. Last year we played Australia in the Davis Cup semi-finals but there was hardly anything in the Swedish papers about it. Now there is a huge interest."
Having appeared on three Cup-winning teams, Edberg expects Sweden to get off to a running start in pursuit of the 2002 crown. "Thomas' victory in Australia gives the edge to Sweden but I think it is going to be a good tie to watch because Tim and Greg will be very strong with a home crowd behind them. I imagine doubles might be the key, though I don't think it will be decided until the last day. I expect Sweden to win in the end, though, because we have a fantastic team spirit and that has been the key over the past 20 years."
Team spirit is a factor for Britain, too, since that marvellous win in Ecuador last September which propelled Taylor's squad back into the World Group. "That gave us a new belief in ourselves," he said. "It was a real test for us to play away from home on clay and we came through it." In five post-War contests with Sweden, Britain have been successful only once; the most recent tie in 1963, played at Wimbledon, when we edged through 3-2. A repeat of that, if Dopey's ears can be clipped, would ensure a very happy arena in Birmingham next Sunday.Reuse content