Tennis: Britain lifted by Rusedski's resilience Britain

t TENNIS World No 6 made to work hard by 198th-ranked South African in the Davis Cup as former Wimbledon favourite decides on early exit
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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI drew first blood for Great Britain in their Davis Cup match against South Africa in Birmingham yesterday. The 26-year-old wore a huge smile of relief after completing a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Neville Godwin to put the home side 1-0 ahead in their World Group relegation play-off.

The British No 1 and world No 6 was an overwhelming favourite against Godwin, ranked a lowly 198th and making his Davis Cup debut. However, Rusedski was made to fight all the way in the opening set as Godwin raised his game despite the intimidating atmosphere generated by the near-capacity crowd at the National Indoor Arena.

Rusedski won his first two service games without conceding a point and had two break points in the fourth game before Godwin rattled off 13 consecutive points on his serve to take the score to 4-5. Eventually, however, his erratic serve let him down when it mattered most, and Rusedski claimed the set after 40 minutes on his third set point.

Despite winning the first set Rusedski was still clearly apprehensive and it was no surprise when he lost his serve in the opening game of the second set. Cheered on by a small but noisy South African contingent in the crowd, Godwin looked much more comfortable than the Briton and had few problems holding his serve as Rusedski struggled to find any rhythm. He was unable to force any break points on the South African's serve and a weak forehand return saw Godwin take the set 6-4 in 35 minutes to level the match.

The crowd sensed Rusedski was struggling and tried to lift him as he created three break points on Godwin's serve in the second game of the third set, but the South African was coping admirably with the pressure and held his serve. He then saved two more break points in the eighth game.

It appeared Rusedski's chance had gone but for the second time Godwin was unable to hold his serve to stay in the set in the 10th game. Two brilliant forehand passes across court gave Rusedski a set point and this time there was no mistake with a simple volley to take the set 6-4 after 42 minutes and bring huge sighs of relief all round.

Finally the momentum had swung firmly in Rusedski's favour and although the Briton was still playing far from his best, it was Godwin's turn to make the unforced mistakes at crucial times. Trailing 2-1, the South African lost his serve to love, Rusedski taking a 3-1 lead with a superb backhand winner across court. Godwin refused to give in and immediately had a break point in the next game but Rusedski saved it in typical style with a thumping ace.

Four opportunities for a second break were squandered in the sixth game but Rusedski was in no mood for a repeat of his loss to Todd Martin in the US Open when he lost after serving for the match in the third set. The 26-year-old was relieved in the end to serve out for the match.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov dismissed the grass court used for the Davis Cup semi- final against Australia in Brisbane as a "potato field" after tumbling to a 6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0 defeat by Wayne Arthurs yesterday. "I have never seen anything like it in my life. That court is just not acceptable for this kind of event," the player ranked No 2 in the world said.

Arthurs, ranked 91, outplayed the Russian to give an under-strength Australian team a commanding 2-0 lead. The teenager Lleyton Hewitt had earlier beat Marat Safin 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

Kafelnikov had attacked the quality of the surface earlier in the week and said Australia could be pleased with themselves if the tie was poised at 1-1 after the first day. Yesterday, the reigning Australian Open champion said the home side had nothing to be proud of. "I won't give any credit for that," Kafelnikov said. "The condition of the court was so pathetic."

Arthurs, who was making his Davis Cup debut at the age of 28, was only called into the Australian team after Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis were forced out by injury, and he laughed off the Russian's complaints. "I don't care what he thinks, we're the ones leading 2-0. He can go home crying if he likes," Arthurs said.

Until now, he had never been on a Davis Cup squad, even as a practice player. "That's by far the biggest moment of my life - that's topped Wimbledon by miles," said Arthurs, who made it to the fourth round at Wimbledon two months ago. "The crowd was going nuts and I was getting so pumped up. It's unbelievable - I can't describe it right now."

Both Russians looked uncomfortable on the grass court, which is normally home to the Brisbane Broncos rugby league team, making fundamental mistakes while their opponents flourished. Safin looked lost in only his second match on grass.

"Once I got on top of him, he just chucked in the towel," Hewitt said. "I really should have won in straight sets."