Tennis: All-British final just one step away

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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI and Tim Henman remained on course for an all-British final yesterday as they powered through to the last four of the ATP World Indoor Tournament in Rotterdam.

Henman overcame the Slovakian Karol Kucera 6-4, 7-6 in his quarter-final meeting and Rusedski joined him last night after triumphing in a three- set thriller against France's Cedric Pioline. The British No 2 won 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, winning both tie-breaks 7-5. He now faces the Australian Open champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, for a place in the final - where Henman could be waiting.

The British No 1 won an early break to lead 3-2 in his match against Kucera and then wrapped up the opening set 6-4 with his third ace of the afternoon, winning in just 43 minutes. He battled back from a 4-1 deficit in the second set to lead 5-4, only for Kucera to break back immediately to 5-5.

The Slovakian fell behind again after his ensuing service game, however, allowing Henman a chance to serve for the match. Henman moved into the driving seat with three match points but then extended a lifeline to Kucera who, after saving two match points, hit a blistering forehand that Henman could only volley into the net.

Two points later Kucera sent the set to a tie-break, hustling to his right on the baseline and passing Henman with another forehand as the Briton charged the net. Henman finally sealed his passage to the semi- final, breaking to lead the tie-break 6-4 before a Kucera lob sailed wide on the final point.

The Russian No 2 seed, Kafelnikov, started strongly in his match but surrendered the second set to the fierce attack of the Swiss youth world champion, Roger Federer, before emerging a 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victor.

Henman and Rusedski could also meet in the semi-finals of the Guardian Direct Cup at Battersea Park next week. Henman, the No 2 seed, will open against a qualifier and Rusedski, the No 3 seed, will play Italy's Gianluca Pozzi.

In Hanover, Venus Williams showed little mercy to Germany's Barbara Rittner, powering to a straight-sets win to advance to a semi-final showdown with Steffi Graf at the Faber Grand Prix.

Williams, seeded second, posted a 6-2, 6-1 rout of Rittner, a qualifier playing her sixth match of the pounds 300,000 event. "I played very aggressively and went to the net," said Williams. "You have to do that if you want to be successful against Steffi." Williams had no trouble against Rittner, a former Top 30 player returning from injury.

The top-seeded Jana Novotna, of the Czech Republic, also advanced, recording a 6-1, 6-4 win over France's Sandrine Testud. The powerful Czech, who lost to Patty Schnyder of Switzerland in the final here last year, found her serve-and-volley game well suited to the quick indoor surface and gave Testud few chances to shine.

The match-up between the charismatic Williams, ranked sixth in the world, and No 7 Graf had been the one the German public wanted to see. Graf, who gained a hard-fought victory in her last meeting with the elder of the Williams sister, was comfortable about her chances in today's match: "When I'm fit and can train well, then I can still beat the top players," Graf said. "I have these circumstances here."

Germany's women's coach, Markus Schur, yesterday welcomed Graf's decision to return to her country's Fed Cup team after a three-year absence. "I hoped there would be an agreement and I'm glad that it came so quickly," Schur said the day after the former world No 1 expressed her willingness to rejoin the team.

Graf, currently seventh in the WTA rankings, helped Germany to a Fed Cup victory in 1987 and 1992. She will lead the German team when they meet Japan in Hamburg this April. The other singles player is likely to be Anke Huber.

Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario has retired from the Fed Cup. The 27-year-old French Open champion, who has competed in the Cup for the past 13 years, said: "I want to have time to myself and be able to live my own life."