Rusedski and Henman restore Britain's pride

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The Independent Online

In the ranks of sport's barmy armies, the British Association of Tennis Supporters tends to be looked upon as a legion of the lost, suitably BATS. Imagine falling for a sales pitch promising a glorious trip to sunny Ecuador to see Britain's Davis Cup team atone for last year's humiliating defeat on Wimbledon's grass by giving the opposition a one-set start in a re-match on clay in their home town and winning the next nine sets to regain a place in the World Group. The unlikely tale unfolded for some 250 cheering, singing, Union Jack-waving BATS at the Club Nacional in Guayaquil over the weekend, beginning with the reconstructed Greg Rusedski's unhinging of Nicolas Lapentti, usually one of the sport's finest clay-court players, 2-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-3. Tim Henman, the British No 1, who may have anticipated having to level the match, increased Britain's first day lead to 2-0 by beating Luis Morejon, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

Giovanni Lapentti, aged 18, Ecuador's hero in the Wimbledon tie, strove skilfully and passionately to rouse the home crowd during Saturday's doubles. But his older brother, Nicolas, was still haunted by the sight of Rusedski on the other side of net; and now Henman was at Rusedski's side, combining to play confidently in spite of noisy attempts by partisan spectators' to whistle and jeer them out of crucial points.

"It was a little bit of an unknown quantity how many people would be here to support us,'' Henman said. "With their support and our tennis, we managed to keep the home crowd quiet a bit." The British pair's win, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, secured victory with a day to spare, a day in which two other members of Roger Taylor's squad, Martin Lee and Barry Cowan, were given an opportunity to gain useful experience by replacing the Big Two for the "dead" rubbers.

Lee, a 23-year-old left-hander from Worthing who was ranked No 1 in the world as a junior, defeated Giovanni Lapentti 6-0, 6-4, completing the first set in only 22 minutes. ''I've worked very hard so I'd be prepared if Tim and Greg were injured, and I think it showed today,'' Lee said. Cowan, a 27-year-old from Southport who pushed Pete Sampras to five sets at Wimbledon, was unable to complete a whitewash, Morejon winning the final rubber, 6-1, 6-4, to make the score 4-1.

After Saturday's doubles there was a cooling-off period as the captain and his players plunged into the Nacional Club's swimming pool, some of them voluntarily. "We haven't been under the kind of intense pressure you can get in this type of tie," Taylor said. "We needed one incredible performance, and Greg achieved that against Nicolas Lapentti. This result can really start us off.

"Now when we are drawn away on clay we will always believe we can win," Taylor added, hoping the rare success will cure Britain's phobia about playing on slow, red surfaces.

We shall see. Europe and Latin America abound with sand traps and players who grow up learning to love them. The contradiction of Britain's ties against Ecuador is that while Nicolas Lapentti rose to the challenge of competing on an alien grass court, he lost his nerve on home ground for the first time. That was the unexpected twist that confirmed the pre-match view that Henman and Rusedski had the attacking capacity to cause an upset in an environment where self-belief and fortitude were likely to count for more than superior world rankings. Their success elevated them into the top 16 nations who go into the World Group draw on 18 October.

Three weeks ago, Henman and Rusedski were dis-appointed, having failed to advance to the fourth round of the United States Open and a meeting that would have seen them duel for a place in the quarter-finals. Both vowed to make amends in Ecuador. Rusedski, noted for accentuating the positive, was emphatic. ''Losing the tie is not an option," he said. Rusedski's resilience has remained firm even when his big-serving game wavered. ''Everybody was writing me off and saying my career's history, basically," the Canadian-born 28-year-old said. "I think I've re-established that my career's coming. What I have to improve for the Grand Slams next year is the ability to raise my game a level. If you watch Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter, guys who win Slams, if they have a day when they don't play at their best, they can find a gear to shift slightly. That's what I need to work on for next year. If I can find that gear, then I'll have a chance to get back to where I was in '97, when I had a quarter-final at Wimbledon and a final at the US Open."