As Britain clawed back to 2-1 down against Morocco in the Davis Cup qualifying round here yesterday by winning the doubles rubber, the focus was on the competing nations' No 1s: Tim Henman on the court and Younes El Aynaoui on the bench.
The 32-year-old El Aynaoui, who with Hicham Arazi gave Morocco a 2-0 advantage on Friday, was resting in preparation for his possibly decisive singles contest against Henman today. Morocco's captain, Karem Alami, decided it was worth sacrificing the doubles to ensure that his top man was fresher than Henman, who, on his own admission, played the worst Davis Cup match of his career against Arazi.
Only once have Britain recovered from 2-0 down to win a Davis Cup tie - against Germany in 1930 - and they will be hard pressed to repeat that today by winning both remaining singles matches to avoid dropping into the Euro-African Zone.
Though the neck problem that hampered Henman on Friday seemed to have eased as he and Greg Rusedski defeated Arazi and Mounir El Aarej, ranked 477 in the world, 7-6 6-2 6-4, the British No 1 did not look sharp until the concluding two sets.
The match, played in front of fewer than 1,000 spectators, lasted just over two hours, the opening set dragging on for 52 minutes. Britain, who had an opportunity to break with Arazi serving at 2-3 down and three more chances on El Aarej's serve at 3-4, unhinged the Moroccans in the tie-break, 7-3.
Arazi, a player who can be dazzling one moment and downcast the next, virtually gifted Britain a break for 2-1 in the second set, twice double-faulting. El Aarej then lost his serve and Rusedski served out the set with a forehand volley.
The Moroccans battled on until 4-4 in the third set, when Aarej was broken, netting the ball after Rusedski had landed it at his feet with a backhand return. Henman served out the match to love.
Henman and Rusedski, unbeaten in seven Davis Cup doubles, once again brought hope when all seemed lost. "It's been a great day," said Roger Taylor, Britain's captain. "Now hopefully Tim can level the match. We're looking on the bright side."
Henman, who defeated Thailand almost single-handedly in a promotion-relegation tie when troubled by a shoulder injury in Birmingham last September, must again produce heroics if Rusedski is to have a chance of securing the tie against Arazi. "It's a big challenge, but I'm looking forward to it," he said. The 30-year-old Rusedski, who spent time wondering if it was worth continuing with all the hard work after losing in the first round of the US Open, would love the opportunity to show how hungry he is for success.
Taylor's contract, which ends after this tie, is to be reviewed by the International Board of the Lawn Tennis Association.
"It's very hard to be critical of Roger, because this tie in Morocco was always going to be tough," said John Crowther, the LTA's chief executive.
"I think he's done a pretty good job, preparing the team very well. Okay, we didn't win the tie in Australia, but Roger got the best out of the players available. If we lose this tie it doesn't mean there has to be a knee-jerk reaction. We have to believe that what we are doing is right."
David Felgate, appointed during the summer as the LTA's director of performance, is responsible for the graduation of players to the international tours.
He told the British reporters here: "You'll make it doom and gloom, the country will think we're crap, and we know we are not.
"It's up to me to get better players, and there's no doom and gloom in our coaching set-up. I'll be off to [our academy] in Leeds on Tuesday, and will go on to Loughborough, Welwyn and Bath."
Few have criticised the LTA more severely than the Lloyd brothers, David and John, Britain's former Davis Cup captain and coach respectively.
Felgate confirmed that the Lloyds are being encouraged to run their independent development schemes in tandem with the national governing body's programmes.
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