Tennis: Another grey day on clay for Rusedski

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The Independent Online
ON THE eve of the Davis Cup tie against the United States in Birmingham, David Lloyd, the British captain, made the point that Greg Rusedski's serve comes down fast on any surface: "You could put down mud and it would be quick," he said. Yesterday's wet, cold, heavy conditions on the clay at the Monte Carlo Open approximated a morass, and the quickest thing about Rusedski was his departure.

Having joked about being alive on the third day of a clay court tournament, as a result of a first-round bye, Rusedski was ill at ease from first ball to last in his opening match against Jiri Novak, which the Czech qualifier won 6-2, 6-2 after only 56 minutes. Double-faults hastened the defeat, costing Rusedski the first and fifth games of the second set, but his whole demeanour suggested a lack of faith in his game on the slow red stuff. He acknowledged that it was "purgatory".

That description would not apply in Yevgeny Kafelnikov's case, the Russian having won the singles and doubles titles at the 1997 French Open. But Kafelnikov was made to looked as much of a novice as Rusedski on the surface yesterday as he collapsed 6-1, 6-2 in only 38 minutes, against Ivan Ljubicic, a Croat ranked No 196 in the world. "I'm not surprised," Kafelnikov said, stressing that the stumble came with his first tentative step towards the French Open, which starts on 24 May. Even so, progress to the final here would have guaranteed Kafelnikov the world No 1 ranking.

Rusedski's match was his first since his heartbreaking loss to the American Jim Courier in the fifth set of the fifth rubber of the Davis Cup match two and a half weeks' ago, and the British No 2's first footing on clay since his defeat by the Belgian Johan Van Herck in the opening round of last year's French Open.

Novak, ranked 50 places below Rusedski at No 62, is a competent clay court player who also has a degree of success on other surfaces (he took Tim Henman to five sets in the first round at Wimbledon last year). He broke Rusedski in the opening game yesterday and again for 4-1 on the way to taking the first set in 30 minutes. The pattern was repeated in the second set, when Novak was helped along by Rusedski's erring serve.

"If anybody puts any money on me to win the French Open, they should be shot," Rusedski said, making light of the situation. "I have as much chance of winning the French Open as of seeing a UFO land today. I don't really enjoy the clay that much. It's nice to have a hit on and to walk on but for tennis, with my style of game, it doesn't seem to do that much for me."

Shortly before transferring his allegiance from Canada to Britain in 1995, Rusedski was a finalist at America's Red Clay Championship in Coral Springs. "Well, it was warm. It was fast," he said. "It was like a hundred degrees every day, so everybody was passing out and I was fresh."

He has jested in the past about skipping the clay court season to prepare for the grass at Wimbledon. "That's a little bit jocular," he said. "I'll think about it in the future. It really is difficult to do well [on clay]. You need some good draws, you need the weather to be warm for you. You need a combination of a few things to work well for you. What do I have to lose? These are the weeks where I'm not really expected to win. At least I go out there and give it an effort. I embarrass myself on some occasions, I look good on others. Who knows? Maybe I'll surprise myself one of these years."

First he will have to surprise his opponents. "I should have taken a little off my serve and serve-and-volleyed a little bit more so I could work my movement forward," he said. "I don't think there was anything strange with me losing on clay. That's pretty normal. There's always next week."

We must delve back to 1981 to find the last British man to win a singles match at the Monte Carlo Open, Buster Mottram defeating the Swiss Heinz Gunthardt (now Steffi Graf's coach) in straight sets. For a larger dose of nostalgia, consider that John Lloyd beat Bjorn Borg in three sets in the quarter-finals in 1975.

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