Alex in wonderland as he leads charge into Goliath's back yard

No Henman, no Rusedski, no hope? Well, perhaps one

By Ronald Atkin
Sunday 02 February 2003 01:00
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Since Roger Taylor hails from Sheffield, the city which gave the world The Full Monty, our Davis Cup captain should have a fair idea of what it feels like to parade in front of an expectant audience down to your underpants and socks. Throw in another film title, Mission Impossible, and the prospects for Taylor and his team in the Davis Cup World Group tie against Australia in Sydney, starting on Friday, are encapsulated.

Since Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski are in rehabilitation, Taylor had no choice but to take with him the equivalent of the Boys' Brigade, four players whose combined rankings total 1,397. It is a grim preview of life post-Henman. Australia's quartet adds up to less than a fifth of that and Lleyton Hewitt, the new Young Australian of the Year, is world No 1 and Wimbledon champion. 'Nuff said.

Evidently not sated by the humiliation heaped on our cricketers, Australian media colleagues have unsheathed barbs aplenty for Britain's tennis players. "David was probably at better odds to slay Goliath," pronounced one publication, overlooking David's historic result. Actually, there are no odds available, the country's betting agencies having calculated that Australia are such clear favourites as to be unbackable.

With Australian practice sessions reduced to 20 minutes by heat so extreme that a nearby race meeting was cancelled to spare the animals, the papers have suggested these short bursts are perfect because they simulate the match times. Even the diplomatic Henman has joined in. The best Britain could hope for, he said, was "to learn from the experience". So one-sided are the line-ups that the Melbourne Age pointed out that if Scott Draper and Jaymon Crabb, drafted in as hitting partners by Australia's captain, John Fitzgerald, and ranked 139 and 206, were British they would both be in the squad.

In addition to Hewitt, Australia will field Mark Philippoussis, pushing back to form after multiple knee operations, Wayne Arthurs, who is ironically London-based, and Todd Woodbridge, one of the supreme exponents of doubles. With Patrick Rafter having opted to call it a day, this is the strongest side Fitzgerald could have hoped for. On the other side of the net will be Arvind Parmar (ranked 163), Scotland's Alan Mackin (332), Miles Maclagan (443) and Alex Bogdanovic (459).

It is a moot point whether the 24-year-old Parmar, likely to be the No 1 singles player, has recovered, or indeed will ever recover, from squandering a two-set lead in the deciding match against Ecuador at Wimbledon in 2000, though he has made, by his modest standards, a decent start to the year.

The selection of the 18-year-old Bogdanovic is as brave as it is interesting and though Taylor has been at pains to stress that all of his quartet have a shot at the singles, the No 2 spot looks certain to go to the Belgrade-born left-hander. Certainly, the Aussies think so, having brought in Draper, also lefthanded, for hitting purposes.

There are, of course, teenagers and teenagers. Boris Becker was Wimbledon champion by his 18th birthday, and at the same age Hewitt had won two tour titles and was ranked 22nd. Further, the list of young Britons tipped for greatness in the past is a long and painful one, but Bogdanovic's Balkan background would seem to have implanted determination alongside talent. The boy with a dream of a backhand won the National Championships last November and marched forward to claim his first senior title, the Nottingham Futures event, as a wild card. Nor, thank heaven, is he fazed by the prospect of tackling Hewitt before 10,000 Aussies.

"I have been preparing for that moment, playing the world No 1 in front of a huge crowd," he said from Sydney yesterday. "Couldn't get any better than that, could it? It would be the biggest match of my life. Surely there is nothing to lose, the pressure is on him. I will be going into the match with a belief that I will win, that's the only way you can approach it, getting positives out of it and learning.

"I am really honoured to be in the British team," said the 6ft 1in youngster, whose full Davis Cup debut this will be. "This has to be one of the highlights of my life, playing for your country. The call came as a bit of a shock really, and if I wasn't nervous I wouldn't be normal. But I will have to deal with that."

Like Hewitt, and unlike most other British competitors, Bogdanovic is comfortable on all surfaces and has been able to get in extended practice on clay in Spain recently. That fact might just be a small worry factor for Fitzgerald, who has been criticised for opting to lay a clay court, the first time for a home tie in Australia's 103-year Davis Cup history. That was done to neuter Rusedski's serving and Henman's volleying before they pulled out, and now the home captain is stuck with a surface he doesn't need.

But, having insisted on laying grass on top of a hard court in Melbourne for the 2001 final, only to be beaten by France, and then going out, with a weakened team, to Argentina in the first round last year, Fitzy is taking no chances. "The memory of Argentina is still bright," he said. "So a win is my priority – big time." Time, then, lads, to prepare to shed underpants and socks.

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