Henman's personal best is cause for British optimism

As Britain moved towards tomorrow's draw for the Davis Cup World Group qualifying round, Jeremy Bates, who negotiated successfully his first tie as captain here in Luxembourg, was asked if he thought Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were capable of winning the cup in the twilight of their careers.

As Britain moved towards tomorrow's draw for the Davis Cup World Group qualifying round, Jeremy Bates, who negotiated successfully his first tie as captain here in Luxembourg, was asked if he thought Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were capable of winning the cup in the twilight of their careers.

The question was grossly optimistic, given that Britain have not even won a tie in the 16-strong World Group since 1986, when Bates was in the team that defeated Spain in the first round in Telford. Bates, Henman and Rusedski blinked and smiled in unison, and agreed to take one match at a time. A home tie against Australia is one of the possibilities.

That does not mean Bates lacks confidence on a tie-by-tie basis. "I feel the team we've got can win against anyone, anywhere," he said, having beaten Luxembourg 4-1 to earn the chance of a swift departure from the Euro-African Zone.

The 29-year-old Henman completed a personal best yesterday, winning all nine sets in his three matches over the weekend. Yesterday, the British No 1 recovered from 5-2 down in the opening set against the left-handed Gilles Muller, the Luxembourg No 1, to secure the tie with a 7-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory.

Rusedski, competing in his first event since his drugs controversy, partnered Henman in an impressive win in Saturday's doubles and concluded the tie by defeating Mike Scheidweiler in the "dead" rubber, 6-3, 7-6.

The only disappointment was Arvind Parmar's five-set defeat by Muller in the first match on Friday, when the British No 3 was given a chance to atone for his collapse against Ecuador at Wimbledon four years ago. Parmar, originally scheduled to play in the second of yesterday's reverse singles, was left to watch Rusedski and rue the chances he failed to take after leading Muller by two sets to one.

Muller, who, with Scheidweiler, lost in the doubles, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, was expected to respond with more gusto yesterday when facing Henman, the world No 8, in the singles, than he did on Friday, when he had been expected to beat Parmar. Muller, the world's No 1 junior in 2001, was keen to show his countryfolk that Henman held no terrors, even if he has been a Wimbledon semi-finalist four times.

Having volleyed away a break point after making a double-fault in the third game, Muller returned well enough to make Henman think twice about coming to the net, and broke for 3-1 on his second break point, after Henman had committed another double-fault at 40-30. When it came to serving for the set at 5-3, however, Muller looked vulnerable under pressure, and Henman converted his fourth break point of the game, returning a second serve with a brisk backhand down the line.

The danger for Henman did not end there. Another double-fault on the opening point of the tenth game meant he had to save two set points before levelling at 5-5. Muller's challenge began to fade in the tie-break. He hit a forehand long at 1-2 and made a double-fault to 2-6, Henman clinching the shoot-out on his first set point with backhand pass down the line.

Henman then took control of the match, winning the opening three games of the second set, which ended with Muller committing a double-fault on set point in the eighth game. Muller made yet another double-fault to lose his serve at 1-2 in the third set, and Henman swept to victory after an hour and 43 minutes.

The mood was upbeat, and, Parmar notwithstanding, there were hints of progress in the search for reinforcements to ease the load on Tim and Greg in the short term, and to replace them in the near future. Jonny Marray, a 23-year-old serve-volleyer, was an enthusiastic member of the squad here, and two promising juniors, Andrew Murray and Andrew Banks, also made the most of having a taste of Davis Cup atmosphere.

"People think somebody just has to press a magic button to get new players, but it doesn't happen like that," Henman said. "But there are 12 to 15 very good young players who are working hard to break through and the atmosphere in the British game is very good. In 1991-92, when I was a youngster, Bill Knight was setting high standards. I thought the vibes were good then, but they're better now."

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