They thought it was all over: The year of the photo-finish: Brilliance in Brum

THE TENNIS MARATHON
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The Independent Online
MUCH HAS been made of the fighting qualities which Jim Courier hurled at Britain in this year's first round of the Davis Cup. How he battled, how he prevailed. True grit, all of it. But the match which swung that tie in Birmingham last April, the setback which shattered home hopes of progress in their first year back in the World Group, was Todd Martin's demolition of Greg Rusedski which left Britain trailing the United States 0-2 at the end of the opening day.

The sheer unexpectedness of that defeat, the shattering 6-4 6-4 6-2 margin, was what undermined British confidence. Wasn't Martin the nearly man of tennis? Wasn't this the fellow who had led 5-1 in the fifth set of a Wimbledon semi-final in 1996 and contrived to lose? Wasn't he, above all, troubled by a strained stomach muscle which threatened to hobble a serve almost as potent as Rusedski's? He had withdrawn from the important Super Nine tournament at Key Biscayne to rest the strain but, even so, was doubtful of his ability to last the distance. Since he is one of the most open people on the men's circuit, there could be no accusation that he was seeking to fox the British camp.

Having just finished this season at a career-best seventh in the rankings, the 29-year-old Martin recalled: "I played two hard sets against Jim two days before the tie and that convinced me I was physically prepared, but I went out there against Rusedski with the idea of conserving my stomach muscle and not going flat out on my serve. Greg is a good guy to do that against because, although his return has improved a lot, it is not a punishing return, it's a get-the-point-started return. So I didn't feel the need to hit aces.

"That day, against one of the biggest servers in the game, I played the best match of my life. I had never returned so well against someone who is able to deliver the ball at over 200kph, and it was a big moment for me because it was something I could share with my team. The most important aspect was that Jim had already beaten Tim Henman. Had we lost that one, mine would have been a very different contest.

"As it was, I was able to play freely. Against Greg, you don't have much time to think. But in trying to force his first serve he missed a lot. His second serve is still wonderful but it is easier to return than the first. If I could think of a match I would like to play over and over again that's the one, for sure. I was on top of my game mentally, but I also had good feel on the ball and I was hitting it so well.

"Success in tennis, or any sport, is very fleeting. You don't win a tournament and then float on cloud nine for months. You either fly home next day or move on to another tournament and get right back to business, either doing laundry at home or hitting tennis balls again on Monday. But the reward of feeling, as I did at Birmingham, that you have gotten more out of yourself than you thought was possible, that's really the reward."

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