New boys show heart and soul to prove there is life after Henman

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The Independent Online

Tim who? Joking aside, Britain's Davis Cup team could hardly have made a more encouraging start to life without Tim Henman, the linchpin from Oxfordshire.

Tim who? Joking aside, Britain's Davis Cup team could hardly have made a more encouraging start to life without Tim Henman, the linchpin from Oxfordshire.

Having completed a 3-2 win against Israel here yesterday, Britain have six months to prepare for their next tie, which will present an opportunity to leave Group One of the Euro-African Zone and rejoin the élite 16 in the World Group.

There was so much to admire over the weekend, the only let-down being the 20-year-old Alex Bogdanovic's inability to make his mark in the second singles match on Friday.

The 31-year-old Greg Rusedski revelled in his role as the senior man, winning his two singles matches in straight sets, and roared on from the sidelines as the inspired and ambitious fledglings, Andrew Murray and David Sherwood, surpassed the hopes of the captain, Jeremy Bates, by winning Saturday's critical doubles match.

They were the heart and soul of a tie that examined the potential of Britain's leading candidates to carry the nation's hopes in the future, and henceforth deserve to be addressed in fan-friendly terms as Andy and Dave.

It was hard to imagine that Murray and Sherwood had hardly met - let alone played together - before they arrived here 10 days ago. The way they dealt with the excesses of a partisan crowd and the experience of Israel's world-class doubles team, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, was magnificent. Though under intense pressure in the third and fourth sets, they held their nerve and prevailed, 6-4, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6, after three hours and 22 minutes.

Bates, who experienced so much while carrying the banner as a player, deserves credit for the decisions he has made since being put in charge of the team. He had the wisdom to hold back the 17-year-old Murray, who was in the squad when Britain lost a World Group play-off in Austria last September, and was bold enough to blood both Murray and the 24-year-old Sherwood for their debuts here.

Murray would also have been Bates's choice to play instead of Bogdanovic in the second of yesterday's reverse singles if the tie had come down to a deciding fifth rubber.

As events transpired, Rusedski's game was too strong for Noam Okun in the duel of the No1 players in the opening contest yesterday, Rusedski winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, after an hour and 46 minutes to seal the team's victory.

Murray was feeling a twinge in a leg after missing his footing during Saturday's doubles, so Bates chose Sherwood to play the dead rubber against Harel Levy, Israel's No 2, who won 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.

Sunday being a working day in Israel - at one point a tractor trundled along the road at the open end of the stadium - the 5,000 capacity Centre Court was only a third full for the Okun-Rusedski match.

Though lacking in numbers, the crowd was vociferous and continued the habit of deriding every British mistake. Rusedski did not offer them as many catcalls as they would have liked, though half of the 16 points he dropped on serve over the three sets were double-faults. One of those helped Okun glean four points off Rusedski's serve in the opening set, which was settled by a forehand return that enabled Rusedski to break for 3-1. The set was over after 29 minutes.

Rusedski double-faulted three times in the second game of the second set, but he managed to save two break points. Okun's best opportunity was at 30-40 when, with his opponent stranded, he missed with a running forehand down the line.

Okun's most embarrassing moment was when he took a swing at a Rusedski lob, at 4-4, 30-40, and missed the ball to lose serve. Rusedski finished the set with an ace.

Rusedski won the first four games of the third set and saved a break point at 4-1 before silencing the spectators - all but the handful of British followers - by converting his first match point in the eighth game.

"I'm willing to play as long as I'm selected," said Rusedski, reminding us that he had only lost to top-10 players so far this year [Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Henman], and had "beaten the players I was expected to beat".

Currently ranked 46th in the world, Rusedski will have marked his 32nd birthday before Britain play again, but the Canadian-born left-hander seems to have been rejuvenated by the challenge of being a mentor to the new generation.

For 10 years, Rusedski and Henman had each faced the prospect of playing three Davis Cup matches in three days, singles and doubles, and Rusedski was delighted to see Murray and Sherwood share the load here.

"The doubles was the key match," Rusedski said. "Everybody expected Israel to win, but Andy and David took the match out of their hands. If they play like that every week, I won't have to worry about playing doubles ever again."

DAVIS CUP Euro-Africa Zone Group One, Second round (Tel Aviv): Friday: G Rusedski (GB) bt H Levy (Isr) 6-4 6-3 6-0; N Okun (Isr) bt A Bogdanovic (GB) 7-6 6-2 6-2. Saturday: A Murray (GB) and D Sherwood (GB) bt J Erlich (Isr) and A Ram (Isr) 6-4 7-6 2-6 7-6. Yesterday: Rusedski bt Okun 6-3 6-4 6-2; Levy bt Sherwood 6-7 6-4 6-3. Great Britain bt Israel 3-2.