There are worse places to start the year than La Manga or Majorca, as many a tourist will confirm, having checked-out at the Christmas stores and checked in at the airport. They will be joined tomorrow by Alex Bogdanovic and Miles Maclagan, who may look as if they are on vacation, but are training to defend Britain's honour against the dreaded Australians.
Reasoning that a clay court would give them a psychological advantage because of Britain's supposed antipathy towards the sport's slowest surface, the Australians have decided to put down a red carpet for the Davis Cup tie in Sydney on 7 to 9 February. That is why Bogdanovic and Maclagan are going to Spain. They will spend five days practising on the clay courts at the Lawn Tennis Association's training base in La Manga, and then move on to compete in clay-court satellite tournaments in Majorca before going to Australia.
Britain, though, have a sacrificial look. Greg Rusedski, the nation's No 2, is a non-starter. Having told Roger Taylor, Britain's captain, that his recently repaired left foot would not stand up to the prospect of playing on clay in Sydney, Rusedski yesterday had to withdraw from this week's event in Doha, Qatar, and will not be fit for the Australian Open, which starts on 13 January.
Tim Henman, the nation's No 1, has also withdrawn from the Australian Open in the hope that his troublesome right shoulder will be ready to take the strain in the Davis Cup.
Rusedski has served Britain well in many ways since arriving from Canada in 1995, not least by taking the spotlight, thereby providing time for Henman's game to mature. Outside Britain, it could be argued, Rusedski has achieved more impressive results than Henman by reaching the United States Open final in 1997, and by beating Pete Sampras to win the Paris Masters tournament in 1998. But the 29-year-old from Montreal does not always endear himself to tennis insiders, or to the media.
While Henman was lauded for playing through the pain in his shoulder to give a heroic display against Thailand, Rusedski was criticised in some quarters for the timing of his withdrawal from the tie because of his foot injury. The pair have had surgery in the meantime, and Rusedski has not played since losing to Sampras in the third round of the US Open almost four months ago.
Leaving Taylor in no doubt about his unavailability for Sydney, Rusedski had kept his options open for the tournament in Doha and the Australian Open, both of which are played on rubberised concrete. He said he had been warned by his surgeon that it would take four to six months to recover from the operation.
While acknowledging that Rusedski cannot know how the foot will react to the rigours of a competitive match, one thing was puzzling: caught between concrete and a softer surface in Sydney, he would have chosen to start on the concrete. We know that Rusedski plays well on concrete and dislikes playing on clay. We know also that every surface is demanding in its own way. Clay courts lend themselves to sliding into shots, which does not suit every player. But concrete jars the body more than any other surface. Had he waited until Sydney he would have been guaranteed Rusedski brownie points, if not match points, simply by being seen to put country before self.
Our Australian cousins are disappointed that Britain will be turning up minus half their world-class players, if not both of them. They want to beat us at our best. But we have enough problems of our own, what with Patrice Hagelauer's decision to resign as the LTA's director of performance, to worry about Australia's finer feelings. They will just have to take what is placed in front of them, and may even detect a touch of Aussie-type ruggedness in Maclagan, a 28-year-old who virtually came out of retirement to partner Henman so ably in the doubles rubber against Thailand in Birmingham last September.
Bogdanovic, 18, is the national champion, which means he defeated the remnants of the British game in Bolton last October, Henman and Rusedski having graduated to a higher plain long ago. Born in Belgrade and raised in Kilburn, Bogdanovic is a prospect in British terms. It remains to be seen whether he has what it takes to become a contender in the international game. A left-hander with an impressive one-handed backhand, Bogdanovic is one of the sport's growing breed of baseliners.
He does appear to have a grasp of what separates winners from losers when he says: "You can improve your game technique, but it's a question of how mentally tough you are." This would certainly be put to the test should Bogdanovic make his Davis Cup debut in Australia in the continuing saga of a tender foot, a tenderfoot and a sore shoulder.
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