SYDNEY, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Australia are facing up to a spell in the doldrums of men's tennis following relegation from the Davis Cup's elite World Group.
Second only to the United States in terms of titles won at the sport's premier team event, Australia lost 4-1 to Serbia to drop out of the top flight for only the second time.
The 28-times champions will now face an Asia-Oceania playoff next year for the right to try to win back their place among the elite 16 nations for 2009.
''We want to get out of there as fast as we can,'' team captain John Fitzgerald told Australian Associated Press.
''There's a lot of great teams now, there really is. I know I harp on about it but it is a worldwide, global, tough sport and a lot of countries have good players.'' Australia has only Lleyton Hewitt ranked in the world's top 90 and the former Wimbledon and US Open champion was forced to pull out of his singles match against Serb No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Sunday because he was suffering from a viral infection.
World No. 3 Djokovic duly beat Hewitt's replacement Chris Guccione 6-3 7-6 7-6 to secure his third win of the rubber and clinch victory for his team in Belgrade.
''It's a challenge to stay in that World Group, but it should be, and it's why if you're in there I'm sure you've earned it,'' Fitzgerald said.
''If you do the homework and have a clue about the sport, then you understand how difficult it is to be in there. You've just got to watch over a period of time to understand the depth of world tennis.'' Australia were relegated from the World Group for the first time since they lost to Hungary in a 1995 playoff.
They last won the trophy in 2003, beating Spain in the final in Melbourne.
REUTERS BJR KN1651