Tennis: Battling Rusedski unable to match the craft of Rafter

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Greg Rusedski's amazing quest for the United States Open ended in defeat here last night when the Briton was outplayed by Pat Rafter, who became the first Australian to win the men's singles title since John Newcombe in 1973 and the first to win a Grand Slam singles championship since Pat Cash at Wimbledon in 1987.

Rafter, like Cash on that occasion, defied barriers to his coaches and family, making short work of scaling the perimeter wall to indulge in well-deserved embraces of congratulations.

The 24-year-old Queenslander, who is based in Bermuda, defeated Rusedski 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. His only other singles title was won on the grass courts of Manchester in 1994.

Rusedski realised that he would have to be at his best to deter Rafter, who had impressed throughout his campaign with a spectacular style, combining serve and volley and athleticism with an ability to chase back and retrieve. His return game has improved steadily since he returned from injury at the start of the year and not even Rusedski's thunderbolts caused him to flinch.

Rusedski, sensing that he had little margin for error, was led, in fact, into making more mistakes than for most of the tournament. His volleys needed to be crisp, but were shaky, lacking the flexibility that comes with the confidence of being able to second guess an opponent.

Rafter had shown in defeating Andre Agassi in the fourth round that while he might concede a set he was unlikely to buckle.

Rusedski gave Rafter credit for his performance, rued his own mistakes, particularly the volleys, but was not downcast "This is only a tennis match, and I'm still young," he said. "I'm sure this won't be my first and last Grand Slam final."

One of Rusedski's tentative volleys cost him the opening set. He netted the shot going for an angle and was broken for 2-4. To compound his problems, the Briton was unable to strike back from any of three break points in the next game.

Having failed to take the initiative, Rusedski quickly slipped further into arrears in the second set. In being broken for 2-3 he took his frustration out on the ball, lashing it into the net after missing a backhand volley. In the next game, he threw his racket down after missing with a shot to the baseline and it seemed at this stage that Rafter's superior play would be aided by his opponent's temperamental responses.

After only an hour had elapsed, Rafter secured a two sets advantage, and by now, the omens were strongly against a Rusedski recovery. The last occasion that a player retrieved a two-set deficit to win the title was in 1949 when the American Pancho Gonzalez unhinged Ted Schroeder at Forest Hills.

Fortunately, no one relayed this information to Rusedski, who rediscovered a semblance of his form of previous days to make the Australian work for his triumph.

The Briton produced a splendid service return down the line to break in the second game of the third set. Prior to that, Rafter had saved 13 consecutive break points - four against Rusedski, eight against Chang in the semi-finals, and one against Magnus Larsson in the quarters.

British hearts began to sink again when Rusedski was broken back in the fifth game after allowing himself to be distracted by a questionable line call.

The set continued on serve, although Rusedski had to save two break points in the ninth game before enjoying his finest moment of the day. Rafter, serving to stay in the set, hit a backhand over the baseline - a rare occurrence in a match he had dominated with the shot - and although Rusedski netted a backhand attempting to return serve on his first set point his winning shot on the second was breathtaking.

Rafter appeared to have read the point correctly and foiled his opponent with a forehand volley across the court, only for Rusedski to scamper after it and lash a backhand down the line while in full stride. "Shot of the day," enthused a watching John McEnroe. "It's going to be the shot of his career if he comes back and wins." That was not to be.

Rafter pause briefly in the fourth set was to pay a visit to the bathroom after the opening game, and returned to break Rusedski for 2-1, the Briton tightening his wrist and netting a backhand volley. Rusedski did recover the break, after Rafter hit a backhand long in the sixth game, and the Briton also hit a serve timed at 143mph, the fastest ever recorded. But it was Rafter who had the greater variety in his armoury and he broke to love for 6-5 before serving out the match.

Rusedski, by advancing to the final here, projected himself to joint top of the list of British players since the ATP world rankings began in 1973. The unseeded left-hander's semi-final victory guaranteed that his ranking would rise today from No 20 to at least No 11 in the world, equalling the status achieved by Roger Taylor in 1973. Taylor was born in Yorkshire, as was Rusedski's mother.

Rusedski went into the final against Rafter, the No 13 seed, with an opportunity of becoming the first Briton to win a Grand Slam men's singles title since Fred Perry beat the American Donald Budge at Forest Hills in 1936.

Already assured of qualification for the 16-man Grand Slam Cup in Munich, in which even first-round losers collect $100,000 of the $6m prize money, Rusedski had hoped to raise his prospects of becoming the first Briton to compete in the eight-man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover.

Saturday's win against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7- 5, after two and a half hours, guaranteed Rusedski at least $350,000. Rafter, along with the title, earned $650,000.

Rusedski, whose challenge was not helped by a throat infection, is scheduled to return to Britain on Concorde today to play in the Samsung Open on the slower clay courts at the West Hants Club. From Broadway to Bournemouth.