Rusedski joins clay revolution

Mike Rowbottom reports from Bournemouth on a new event, a new surface and a traditional setting
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With nearly half of the matches on the international tennis circuit taking place on clay, the idea of offering British players clay courts on which to practice and compete would appear to be a matter of common sense.

For whatever reason, it has taken the Lawn Tennis Association many years to follow the obvious course of action - perhaps it is the national obsession with lawns and Wimbledon which has been to blame.

This week, however, Britain's first men's clay-court event is taking place in Bournemouth. And even though it has been deprived of the talismanic figure of Tim Henman, who is still recovering from the injuries he incurred last week in reaching the fourth round of the United States Open, the inaugural Bournemouth International Open, which has a three-year sponsorship agreement with Samsung as part of the ATP tour, offered evidence that the domestic sport is moving in the right direction.

Naturally enough, those competing for the pounds 270,000 prize money include a number of clay court specialists such as the two-time French Open champion and Olympic silver medallist, Sergi Bruguera, and his Spanish compatriots Alberto Costa and Felix Mantilla, world ranked 15 and 16 respectively.

The tournament lost one of its biggest names unexpectedly yesterday when Andrei Medvedev, the 21-year-old Ukrainian, who reached a world ranking of No 4 two years ago, was beaten 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 by the Dutch qualifier Tom Kempers, currently ranked 512th.

But the British colours were advanced by the genial, naturalised Canadian Greg Rusedski, who had a straightforward 6-1, 6-2 win over Bernardo Mota of Portugal, a late replacement for his scheduled opponent Joao Cunha- Silva, who cried off with an injured knee.

That Luke Milligan, the 20-year-old taxi driver's son from Muswell Hill, failed to join him in the second round was not surprising given his draw against Mantilla, the tournament's second seed. Milligan made a dogged attempt to match the Spaniard, but fell away after a close first set, losing 6-4, 6-1.

As far as the LTA tournament director, John Feaver, is concerned, the longer Rusedski can remain in contention on a surface which does not suit his natural serve-and-volley game the better it will be for stimulating interest in the new event.

But Feaver is looking beyond the events of this week. The initiative which has been taken here is part of an overall strategy by the LTA which was put into action 18 months ago, when plans were laid for establishing clay courts in Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Birmingham. After this tournament, Bournemouth will be established as a regional training centre, complete with a new clubhouse.

The matches this week are being watched by coaches from all over the country, many of whom have only previously seen clay-court play on television. The surface is green, US clay rather than the red clay used throughout Europe, which has not proved compatible with the British climate on recent occasions when attempts have been made to create new courts at Wimbledon and Queen's.

"It's not surprising that British players haven't done well on clay if the only chance they get to practice on it is abroad," Feaver, a former Davis Cup player, said. "Getting a regional training centre here has got to be good for everyone.

"I sense that there is a new feeling in the British game this season. Tim Henman is big. Greg Rusedski is big. That is something we can build on.''

What Bournemouth also has to build on is a great tradition. The main offices beside the centre court were displayed yesterday with pictures of those who had taken part in the British Hard Court Championships which were held here until sponsorship was lost in 1983. In 1968, it was Bournemouth which hosted the first ever open tournament involving both amateurs and the newly established professional players.

The professionals taking part this week are using oak lockers saved from the old clubhouse, adorned with the names of previous users - J Drobny, R Lacoste, F J Perry.

"We are not launching from cold," Feaver said. "When players see the names of those previous winners here, they want to emulate them. Yeah, sure, the tournament is about winning money, but sporting pride also comes into it.''

The other factor involved in the tournament's success is - naturally enough - the weather. Feaver hasn't acquainted himself with the forecasts for this week, however. "If they are good," he said, "I don't believe them. If they are bad, I get pissed off.''