Rusedski enters unchartered territory

By way of a change from Henmania, a few Gregorian chants. Yesterday, three years after Greg Rusedski marked his debut as a Briton by losing to Mark Petchey of Essex in the first round of the Stella Artois Championships here, the Canadian-born left-hander became the first player to carry the Union Jack into the semi-finals.

This happened on a day when the Stars and Stripes was lowered: Pete Sampras, the world No 1 and a three-time Wimbledon champion, lost to Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. The Californian, whose quest for the French Open was curtailed by another Swede, Magnus Norman, in the third round in Paris, seemed to lose impetus midway through the second set. Bjorkman, ranked No 24 and climbing, was not slow to capitalise.

The revitalised Rusedski's victory against Australia's Pat Rafter in the quarter-finals, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, was impressive in several aspects, not least the way Rusedski lifted his performance after losing serve to trail 3-4 in the second set. Up until then, Rusedski was undoubtedly second- best to a player whose consistency had taken him to the semi-finals of the French Open a week earlier.

The transformation from the moment Rafter netted a smash at 0-15 in the eighth game of the second set was remarkable. Rafter subsequently double- faulted to present Rusedski with the chance to break back to 4-4, after which he dictated the course of the match.

"From 4-3 in the second set to 3-1 in the third I played some of the best tennis I've played this year," Rusedski said. That is pretty impressive considering that in San Jose in February he beat Michael Chang and Andre Agassi back-to-back and took the opening set off Sampras in the final before damaging his wrist.

"I have to give Pat credit," Rusedski added. "I was pleased with the way I fought, but the French Open definitely was going to take its toll on him."

Rusedski has not had a smooth run this week. On Wednesday, having completed his opening-round match against Australia's Mark Woodforde, he had to save two match points against Kevin Ullyett, a South African qualifier, whom he overcame in a third-set tie-break, 9-7.

A brilliant display against one Queenslander, Scott Draper, earned Rusedski a match against another, and Rafter looked a class act for a set and a half. It was then that Rusedski rediscovered confidence in his service returns, enabling his mighty serve to take care of itself.

The power was there - two of his serves were timed at 133mph, and during the pre-match warm-up one of his deliveries accidentally struck a ball- girl in the back, knocking her over - and once he was able to dent Rafter's serve, Rusedski's grass-court game melded for a superior final set.

Sampras was left to continue his Wimbledon preparations with Tim Henman in the doubles. His form has slumped ominously since he won 17 consecutive matches through the Australian Open, San Jose and Philadelphia. Since the end of February his record has been one chiefly of woe, six wins and seven defeats.

Bjorkman, who like Rusedski found the scope to make his returns count in the second half of his match, is due to play the big-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis in today's semi- finals. Philippoussis beat Henman's conqueror, Jens Knippschild, 6- 2, 6-7, 6-4.

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