Mature Murray targets Henman vacuum

After 10 years of cushioning in the Tim Henman comfort zone comes the inevitable reality of Davis Cup life without Our Hero. There is no Henman to carry Britain's flag to Tel Aviv this week for the Euro-African Zone tie against Israel, so what would have been viewed as a doddle now appears a touch daunting.

After 10 years of cushioning in the Tim Henman comfort zone comes the inevitable reality of Davis Cup life without Our Hero. There is no Henman to carry Britain's flag to Tel Aviv this week for the Euro-African Zone tie against Israel, so what would have been viewed as a doddle now appears a touch daunting.

Instead the banner, and the burden, will be borne by Greg Rusedski. As the only world- class player in the five-man squad, Rusedski's admirable commitment on such occasions will be stretched to the maximum; two singles wins and maybe, but only maybe, a part in the doubles, too.

Henman's decision to call it a Davis Cup day after a decade of loyalty means that younger British talent is not only invited, but finally required, to stand up and be counted. The man in charge of the arithmetic is the non-playing captain, Jeremy Bates. He will need just three fingers to make the choice of who should fill the second singles place behind Rusedski: Arvind Parmar, Alex Bogdanovic or Andy Murray.

Provided his aching 31-year-old frame holds together, Rusedski should be far too experienced for Israel's singles operators, Harel Levy and Noam Okun, leaving one more point to be gained to guarantee a place in the World Group play-offs in the autumn.

In the past, Rusedski has also teamed up with Henman for the doubles, to impressive effect. But that was then, and now is the time, Bates feels, to justify the captain's cap. "In an ideal situation, I would look to someone else to play doubles," he said in his offices at Barons Court, west London, before the team fly out today.

One reason is that three best-of-five-set matches on successive days might overstretch Rusedski should the tie go the full distance. Another is that Israel's best hope of a point lies with their formidable doubles pairing of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, winners of the Rotterdam title last weekend. Erlich was born in Argentina, Ram in Uruguay, so no more needs to be said about their fighting qualities.

Sheffield's 24-year-old David Sherwood, now restored to official favour after his loose-cannon days, looks certain of a debut in the doubles, and he could be paired with another debut boy, the 17-year-old Scottish prodig Murray. The question mark is whether Bates, who says categorically, "I am not a gambler", is prepared to point the singles selectorial finger in Murray's direction. In that case, the doubles pairing would be wide open.

Bates says he is already "80 per cent certain" of whom he will pick, adding: "I am not frightened of putting Murray in. Nor is it much of a gamble."

Pointing out that Murray had shown ability to cope readily by winning the US Open junior title last September, and had subsequently done well on the grown-up Tour in Futures and Challenger tournaments, Bates said: "You can sense being around somebody whether they are comfortable in the environment, when somebody is able to deal with those types of issues. I don't think Andy gets fazed.

"Though winning the US juniors was a fantastic achievement, it's not men's tennis. He has gone on from that to win matches in senior tennis and has matured in that period. When somebody is going to be good they move along very quickly. We are five months beyond that US win and he is a different Andy Murray to last September."

So, then, Murray is clearly in the forefront of Bates's thinking, and the teenager from Dunblane is eager to seize his chance. "Getting picked would be the best moment of my career so far, 10 times bigger than what I did at the US Open," he said after a practice session on Friday in London. "I have matured quite a lot. The first month after the US was difficult, because of all the interest, but after that died down I managed to get back on the ground and just concentrate on my tennis, and that helped me a lot. I realised I have a good chance of going to the top and I am just going to keep working hard until I do it."

Murray withdrew from a tournament in Portugal last week citing a back condition, but stressed that it was a precautionary measure. "In Chile at the beginning of the year my lower left back was tight, so I thought it best to come back home. I got it sorted in a couple of weeks, so I went to Portugal. It was fine for two matches, but in the third match I felt a little twinge, so I decided to stop and get ready for the Davis Cup.

"I think it is something associated with growth," said Murray, who has added an inch since the turn of the year and now stands at 6ft 2in.

Whether Murray will walk tall at the Tel Aviv's Ramat Hasharon Tennis Centre on Thursday will not officially be known until the draw is made on Wednesday evening. Of the other candidates for a singles spot, the 20-year-old Bogdanovic owns the best world ranking (170) and has already played for his country, against Australia two years ago, losing to Lleyton Hewitt and defeating Todd Woodbridge in a dead rubber.

Parmar, ranked 183, is perhaps the best candidate on current form but has endured a woeful time whenever chosen, including losing a match in Luxembourg, of all places, a year ago. That was Bates's captaincy debut, so may count against Parmar, but the indications, judging by Sherwood's selection, are that bygones are firmly bygone.

The son of Olympic medallists John and Sheila (Mexico 1968), David was first dropped from the LTA's plans because of a liking for the social life and then ousted for a second time when he failed to turn up for a practice session. Now, helped by his father, Sher-wood is back on track, fully committed and playing well.

"Something has obviously changed," said Bates. "I have always been a fan of his and I am very pleased for him." That pleasure would be unbounded should Sherwood help propel a Henman-less Britain to victory this week.

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