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SPORTS WEEKEND

It Could Be a Great Weekend for Britain

Tennis: U.S. team faces a serious threat from Henman and Rusedski in Davis Cup opener.

April 02, 1999|BUD COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BIRMINGHAM, England — Britain, long the comedy relief act in tennis, has stopped taking pratfalls now that Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski have become leading men, and may well have the last laugh this weekend at the expense of the United States.

"We know we've been the laughingstock of the game, and that was incentive for me to work hard," says Henman. "We were rock-bottom when Greg and I joined the team in 1995, so this has been a mission for us to regain respectability for our country."

Respect will be Britain's for the first time in two decades if Henman and Rusedski can topple the United States, principally Todd Martin and Jim Courier, in the first round of the Davis Cup today.

Not since 1978, when the Brits reached the final at Palm Springs, only to be minced by an American rookie named John McEnroe, has Britain been so excited about Davis Cup. With 9,400 partisans at the long sold-out National Indoor Arena and millions more watching on TV, it's showtime for Henman and Rusedski.

Henman, ranked No. 7 in the world, leads off today against No. 54 Courier, followed by No. 11 Rusedski and No. 8 Martin in the best-of-five series that concludes with the singles reversed Sunday. Henman and Rusedski are scheduled to play the doubles--an American disaster area--Saturday against Courier and Alex O'Brien.

If Henman and Rusedski succeed, will people, unwilling to overlook the absence of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, say they beat the U.S. "B" team?

"Sure, Sampras would have given them an edge," says David Lloyd, the British captain who played on that 1978 team with his brother John. "But I don't think Agassi would have been picked ahead of Courier or Martin. But for the life of me I can't figure how Sampras wouldn't want to play for his country."

Neither can anybody else. After all, aren't the other guys stalking him--Carlos Moya, Alex Corretja, Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis, Yevgeny Kafelnikov--wearing their homelands' silks today?

Courier aims a steely look at anybody making "B" team jibes, and for good reason. The U.S. is 12-0 when he has played.

"We're the team, America's team," he says. "Todd and I are committed to Davis Cup. The experience is important to us. It isn't to Pete and Andre. We're comfortable without them and I think we'll win."

Martin says, "We're playing for ourselves, our team and our country. What could be better than that?"

U.S. captain Tom Gullikson is thankful for them, especially since Martin, expressed some tough love two weeks ago: "Get over it!"

"It" was the hope that somehow Sampras would relent and play.

"We put the full-court press on Pete and Andre," Gullikson says. "No luck."

"This is a tough match regardless," says Lloyd, adding, "We should have been seeded, as the Americans are, and not be facing them at the start.

"But," he says with a smile, "it may be kismet. How nice in this 100th year of Davis Cup to have the two teams that started it in 1900 going head to head. It might not have happened if we'd been seeded. We're happy to play the Yanks. We haven't beaten them since 1935."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Davis Cup Facts

* First round: United States vs. Great Britain, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, England.

* Surface: Greenset hard court.

* Head to head: Rivalry began 1900, United States leads, 10-7.

ORDER OF PLAY

* Today: Jim Courier vs. Tim Henman (Cup records--Courier, 14-9. Henman--11-3. Head-to-head--Courier, 1-0); Todd Martin, vs. Greg Rusedski (Cup records, Martin, 10-3; Rusedski, 10-1. Head-to-head--Martin, 4-1).

* Saturday: Alex O'Brien and Courier vs. Henman and Rusedski (Cup records--O'Brien-Courier, 0-0; Henman-Rusedski, 2-0).

* Sunday: Henman vs. Martin (Head-to-head--Martin, 3-1). Courier vs. Rusedski (Head-to-head--Courier, 3-0).

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