Tennis: Britain's leading men make a painful exit

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S prospects went horizontal on the clay after only four hours and two minutes of the opening day of the French Open. Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and began to think about the friendlier grass courts of England and the lead-up to Wimbledon a month hence.

In that respect, Henman is a worry. Muscular spasms in his back caused the 23-year-old from Oxford to retire after only 30 minutes of his match on Court No 7 against Sergi Sargsian, of Armenia, who was leading, 5-2, 0-15. Henman won the concluding point after laying face down on the court receiving treatment from the physiotherapist, Bill Norris.

"I'm going to see the doctor," Henman said after explaining that he first felt the pain in his back while practising with the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov on Sunday. "Until I know what the problem is it's a little difficult to say what's going to happen," Henman added. "I hope and I think it shouldn't be too long before I can get back on the court."

Asked if he feared missing Wimbledon, Henman said, "Not really. Obviously it is around the corner, but at this moment it's more disappointing to have prepared so much on the clay and for something simple to happen and force me to miss this tournament."

Earlier, the physio had been called to assist Rusedski on Court No 3. The British No 1 stretched out on the clay after the opening game of the third set against Belgium's Johan Van Herck while Norris massaged his back, neck and shoulders. Rusedski, the No 5 seed, emphasised that the problem had no bearing on the nature of his defeat, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. "I just needed an adjustment," he said. "I felt a little tight. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me. A little click, besides that I was a hundred per cent fit."

It was a rather strange day for Rusedski. No sooner had the vagaries of the ATP Tour world rankings system promoted him from No 5 to No 4, matching his highest position, than he became the first seed to be eliminated from the year's second Grand Slam championships.

Rusedski's performance encapsulated his clay court season - one win in six matches. "I basically followed the same pattern for the last five weeks - getting up a break then not playing very well for the rest of the match," he said. There were moments during the opening set when Rusedski appeared to have the measure of the 96th-ranked Van Herck, and occasions when he looked if he might struggle to beat Van Morrison.

As Rusedski admitted, uncertainty invaded his game almost as soon as he had broken to lead 4-2. He served his way to 40-15 in the next game, only for his opponent to work his way back and recover the break, hitting a splendid backhand service return down the line. The backhand proved Van Herck's most effective shot, both cross-court and down the line, and he used it to return a second serve to secure the decisive break for 5- 4.

The Belgian broke for 5-4 in the second set after Rusedski had saved two break points after twice double-faulting in the third game. Rusedski fought off seven break points in the opening game of the third set, Van Herck converting an eighth chance.

While Rusedski received treatment from Norris during the change-over, another physio massaged Van Herck's right thigh. The twinge did not deter the Belgian from going for his shots and celebrating the best of them with a little skip.

Other seeds joined Rusedski at the exit. Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman (No 7), was defeated by Thomas Muster, the 1995 champion, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, and the Slovakian Karol Kucera (No 9), lost to Australia's Todd Woodbridge, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.

Rusedski, who will ask for a wild card to defend his Nottingham title the week before Wimbledon, was disappointed but philosophical. "Playing the clay court season is definitely going to be a plus in the long term," he said. "It's the boring old saying, `it's a learning curve', which you guys print in the newspaper way too often in the clay court season. Maybe you can print we have a winning formula on the clay court season next year."

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