Round: World Group first round
Dates: 2 - 4 April, 1999
Venue: National Indoor Arena, Birmingham
Once upon a time, Great Britain had been a dominant force in Davis Cup. It was crowned champion nine times between 1903 and 1936, but those days were long gone when Britain made a return to the World Group in 1999.
The British team had last played in the competition’s top tier in 1992, so expectations were high as the most successful nation in Davis Cup history, USA, was the visitor seven years later.
The occasion also had added significance, as Great Britain - originally as British Isles - and USA are the inaugural two Davis Cup nations and the competition was entering its centenary year.
Home, sweet home for GB
Britain benefitted from home advantage and elected to play on a quick hard court at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena, a venue made famous for also hosting the popular TV programme, Gladiators.
A bumper crowd - helped by the Bank Holiday Easter weekend - packed into the impressive indoor stadium, with nearly 30,000 fans over the three days witnessing a gladiatorial battle every bit as entertaining as the Saturday night show.
“I'm very confident we will win,” said David Lloyd, the GB captain. “There's going to be 9,700 people [every day]. It's packed, it's enormous and you've got two players who are recognised. Then throw in the fact that you're playing Davis Cup, and you throw in the fact it's America. It's special. You can't buy what’s going to happen in the next three days.”
Lloyd wasn’t too far off the mark – the tie was special, actually, it was very special. His prediction of a home win, however, wasn’t accurate, as USA escaped with the narrowest of 3-2 victories.
Lloyd names top players, Gullikson relies on depth
Lloyd had the luxury of nominating his top two players, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, a partnership that had led the team to two promotions in three years. At the time, they were ranked No. 7 and No. 11 in the world respectively.
"First and foremost, we're in the World Group and that's what we've been working towards," said Henman. “It would have been nice if it would have been the Final, but to play in the first round, it doesn't get much bigger. I think Greg and I both know we're very excited and very motivated."
Tom Gullikson, on the other hand, was missing Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, but such was the strength in depth at his disposal, the American captain could call upon Jim Courier and Todd Martin, alongside Alex O’Brien and Jan Michael Gambill.
"We expect to play well and I really think we can win this tie,” said Gullikson. “I think we've got the guys who have had very good success against Henman and Rusedski in the past, and there's no reason for us to think any differently that it won't continue this weekend.”
USA takes early lead
The draw pitted Henman against Courier in the opening rubber, a tantalising match-up that would set the tone for the weekend. Both players fought like warriors, but it was the American who eventually prevailed 76(2) 26 76(3) 67(10) 75.
Courier, who had been dropped by Gullikson for USA’s previous tie, repaid the faith shown in him by his captain by bouncing back from four missed match points in the fourth to wrap up proceedings in five long sets.
“The fans have been very fair to me,” reflected Courier. “If this is the first match and it's any indication of what's coming, this weekend is going to be a good one. You can't be down on Tim, he played valiantly and this is only the first match. There's a long way to go.”
This result piled the pressure on Rusedski, who faced Martin in the second rubber. The big serving left-hander never settled and found the American in devastating form. After three quick sets, Martin had recorded a 64 64 62 win to put USA firmly in the driving seat, leaving Rusedski reflecting that he’d been “completely dominated.”
“He (Rusedski) has to realise I played at the top of my ability,” said Martin. “I got a lot of good breaks, but we need to stay on top of Great Britain this weekend. If Jim had lost, it would make for a lot more urgency to my job. We now have three chances at one point, on Saturday and Sunday.”
Brits double up to keep home hopes alive
Great Britain now had a mountain to climb, but Henman remained upbeat that there was still everything to play for and that the doubles rubber could see a change in fortunes.
“It's my character to bounce back and I shall do it,” said the British No. 1. “I'll be ready for the doubles tomorrow. It doesn't hide my disappointment now, but you've got to move on, and we still believe that we can turn this around.”
This belief was evident when Henman and Rusedski took to the court on Saturday, lining up against Martin and O’Brien. Although the two Brits weren’t an established pair, they complimented each other’s games extraordinarily well and produced an accomplished performance to keep the tie alive, winning 36 75 63 67(5) 63.
“Greg and Tim are a really good pair,” enthused Lloyd. “They combine so well, they serve and volley so well. They have that natural movement. They looked like they played so many times together, but they haven't.”
Henman rides luck to set up decider
Despite Britain’s mini revival, the Americans were still firm favourites heading into the final day. Martin and Courier had both been in fine form in the opening singles rubbers, while Henman and Rusedski had the weight of a nation on their shoulders. Tennis fever had now firmly gripped the British public, which is normally reserved solely for the annual Wimbledon fortnight.
The responsibility to prolong the tie fell on Henman in the fourth rubber, and he didn’t get off to a very convincing start against Martin. The American was cruising at 64 43 30-15 with the balls in his hand, when a questionable line call swung the momentum in Henman’s favour. The British No. 1, who later described the shot as ‘in’, took full advantage, immediately breaking serve before going on to clinch a 46 75 63 76(4) victory.
“I thought it was so far in,” said Martin. “Being up a set and a break, being in a great rhythm and feeling good about my game, and I don't really feel like Tim had found his range yet, that's a big opportunity lost. I think if I get up two sets to love, I don't think the match is over, but it's as close to it as it's ever going to get if I’m not going to win.”
Courier edges final showdown
So the tie went into a deciding fifth rubber, with Rusedski bidding to seal Britain’s first comeback from 0-2 down since 1930. He was up against Courier, though, the ideal player for such a situation – experienced, gutsy and full of passion.
Courier settled quickly to take the opening set, but when Rusedski levelled proceedings in the second it always looked like this titanic battle would go the distance. After nearly four hours on court, Courier broke British hearts by converting his first match point deep into the fifth set, triumphing 64 67(3) 63 16 86.
“I have enormous respect for Jim Courier more than any other player,” said Lloyd. “I have enormous admiration for him. He was the No. 1 player in the world for two years. He is a great player. He was the player of this tie.”
As the crowd departed on Sunday evening, the usual mood of disappointment and dismay that follows such a narrow defeat wasn't apparent. Instead, there was a feeling of optimism and a sense of anticipation for the future, as Britain was once again mixing it with the best in the world.