Murray's feats made for clay

Davis Cup: Young Scot enters the equation for a singles place after his US glory as Britain face arduous test in Austria

Stand by for a heady mix of fantasy and reality in the world of tennis over the next few days. The news that a British man not only wins Wimbledon but also gets the girl will be announced to an eager nation at a film première this week. No prizes for correctly identifying this as fantasy.

Stand by for a heady mix of fantasy and reality in the world of tennis over the next few days. The news that a British man not only wins Wimbledon but also gets the girl will be announced to an eager nation at a film première this week. No prizes for correctly identifying this as fantasy.

Reality comes in the shape of Britain's Davis Cup tie in Austria, starting on Friday. That the hosts have chosen to stage the occasion in Portschach, a scenic lakeside village which, according to Martin Reiter of the Austrian Tennis Federation, is "a resort popular with our country's high society", will not mask the fact that the chosen playing surface is clay.

Of late, as Britain's captain, Jeremy Bates, points out, clay has become less of a feared factor. The sight of Tim Henman sashaying into the French Open semi-finals did much to dispel such fears. However, Austria's No 2, Stefan Koubek, claims the courts of Roland Garros offered "fast conditions", if such a descrip-tion can ever apply to clay. Now, he warns, Tim and his mates will face clay which is "a little bit slower, a little bit deeper and a lot tougher to play on for the British".

Bates, winding up what he termed a "fantastic" five-day training session at the Spanish resort of La Manga, played a straight racket to that information while reiterating: "Fear of clay is a bit of a myth. For a long time now, all our players have spent a lot more time on clay and are far more versatile all round. So any fear has long gone."

There are several plus factors to give the British team of Henman, Greg Rusedski, Alex Bogdanovich and Andrew Murray hope of adding to the 7-2 lead we hold over Austria in the Davis Cup. First is Henman, who has just added a last-four place at the US Open to that semi in Paris and a quarter-final at Wimbledon. He is, too, a redoubtable operator on behalf of his country.

Then there is the revived form of Rusedski, who opted to play a hard-court tournament in Florida last week, and reached the last eight. Most of all, though, is the arrival on the squad of Murray, the 17-year-old who did last weekend what no Briton had previously managed by winning the US Open junior title.

The Scot is that rarity in British tennis, an all-court performer. Clay is among his favourites, since he has been based on that surface for the past two years at the Emilio Sanchez academy in Bar-celona and, after an eight-month lay-off because of knee problems, came back to win successive Futures titles on clay in Spain and Italy before going on to glory in New York.

"Andrew has done really well in La Manga," said Bates. "Obviously, he has been on such a high after what he did at the US Open. He just stepped out on to the clay here as if it's second nature to him. It's a surface he knows, enjoys and relishes. And if you enjoy playing on clay, that's a bonus."

So there is a strong case to be made for playing Murray in the singles. Naturally, Bates would not be drawn on select-ion at this stage. "But what is important is that they all know the spots are wide open and [the second singles place] is up for grabs, if not this time then certainly in the future, when Alex and Andrew know they are going to be the backbone of our team."

What will not be in any doubt is the fielding of Henman and Rusedski as the doubles pairing, since they are unbeaten together. However, Rusedski may not be far enough along the path of recovery from a depressing spell of injury followed by his drugs-charge drama to face three best-of-five-set contests on successive days.

The former Davis Cup coach John Lloyd says: "It is a very good shot that Murray will play." Sanchez, too, is full of praise for him: "He not only has the shots but reads the game better than most kids of his age and plays with variety instead of beating hell out of the ball."

The Austrians have enjoy-ed a recent boost, since three of their team, Jurgen Melzer, Koubek and Alexander Peya, reached the third round at the US Open, Peya as a qualifier, while the doubles specialist Julian Knowle was runner-up at Wimbledon. The two left-handers, Melzer (ranked 37), who has beaten both Henman and Rusedski this year, as well as Andre Agassi and Marat Safin, and Koubek (82) should be nominated for the singles by the captain, Thomas Muster, whose first tie in charge this is.

It is a comeback in all senses for the 37-year-old Muster, former world No 1 and 1995 French Open champion. He retired in 1999 to live in Australia, where the good life saw him put on four stone. Now he is back to playing weight on the seniors' Delta Tour of Champions, and leading the qualifiers for the Masters at the Royal Albert Hall, which takes place from 30 November to 5 December.

It will, says Muster, be difficult to sit in a chair and watch someone else do the hard work after his own 12-year stint as a player, in which he won 36 of his 44 singles, an all-time best for his country. He knows a repeat of Austria's 5-0 win the last time the nations met on clay (at Zell-Am-Zee in 1988) is not likely in a tie where a place in the élite 16-nation World Group next year is at stake.

In fact, Britain could win this one, and if Murray is involved it would match anything Hollywood is going to manage this week.

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