Tennis: Fine clay day for Rusedski and Henman

French Open: For first time in 20 years two British men progress in Paris and reach second round
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THEY ARE still a long way from being regarded as sons of the desert, but at least Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski soiled their shoes and socks in the dusty red clay of Paris to good effect yesterday, the first occasion in 20 years that Britain could boast two men through to the second round of singles at the French Open.

Henman's win was the more memorable, because it was the 24-year-old from Oxford's first success at Stade Roland Garros in four attempts and was gained the hard way, over five sets. Henman defeated Karim Alami, of Morocco, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, after three hours and nine minutes.

Rusedski defeated Germany's David Prinosil, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4, after two hours and 40 minutes. The British No 2 nearly made his day's work shorter, recovering from 2-5 to 5-5 in the third set, only to lose the tie-break, 7-4.

The fact that Henman and Rusedski are about to become the nation's first men to tread the clay for more than one singles match since John Lloyd and Buster Mottram in 1979 is a fair commentary of the way British players have struggled in particular on the sport's slowest surface.

Only a year ago, Henman and Rusedski were dispatched from the French Open singles after just four hours and two minutes had elapsed on the opening day, although Henman did have the excuse of a back injury, which caused him to retire after only 30 minutes of his match against the American Sargis Sargsian.

Henman, the No 7 seed, performed with skill and determination yesterday in overcoming Alami, ranked No 56 in the world, whose main claim to fame is that in 1994 he defeated Pete Sampras, the world No 1, in the first tournament of the year, in Qatar. Alami, an athletic player who is not afraid to attack the net, was backed by vociferous supporters on Court No 10, in the shadow of the Centre Court (although clouds blocked the sun for much of the contest).

"At 6-4, 3-3 I felt as if I was totally in control," Henman said, "and I was disappointed with the way I allowed him to dictate the play after that. I got defensive and was erratic. At two sets all I had to start again. I'm just happy with the way I finished it off."

Henman earned the opportunity to test his rising confidence on clay against the Czech Jiri Novak in the second round by saving three break points from 0-40 at 1-1 in the fourth set and then holding his nerve in the final set, when Alami allowed his concentration to be distracted by external influences such as a mobile overhead camera, at which he waved, and noises from outside the court over which the umpire had no control.

Having broken for 2-1, Henman managed to hold serve in spite of double- faulting twice from 40-0. He then flustered Alami into offering a break point from 40-0 in the next game and was not inclined to let the Moroccan off the hook when the chance came to lead 5-2. Alami was so annoyed at missing a backhand volley that he belted a ball into the crowd, incurring a code violation. Henman failed to serve out the match at the first time of asking, but did not concede a point when his next opportunity came at 5-4.

Rusedski, seeded No 12, will now play Richard Fromberg, a 29-year-old Australian, ranked No 74, who enjoys competing on clay. Rusedski goes into the match with the edge of knowing that he won his last match against Fromberg on clay, at the Samsung Open in Bournemouth in 1997, a result which launched Rusedski into the world's top 10.

After failing to finish the match against Prinosil in straight sets, Rusedski faced a minor crisis when serving at 3-3, 0-40 in the fourth set. Prinosil missed a splendid chance on the third break point, belting a forehand over the baseline after working Rusedski wide of the court. Rusedski held serve, and broke in the concluding game, passing Prinosil with a forehand return off a second serve on his third match point after two hours and 40 minutes.

Rusedski said much of the credit should go to his new fitness trainer, Ken Matsuda.

"We've been working on my movement, my return of serve, my serve and volley and my balance," Rusedski said. "So I think I can start enjoying the clay more. I want to come to the French and I want to justify my seeding here this year. It will be nice to get to that fourth round."

Of himself and Henman, he added: "We want to pride ourselves on being good players on all surfaces because we've done well on grass, indoors and hard courts. But on clay our records have been a bit dismal.

"Now I'm starting to feel comfortable, learning how to mix it up: serve- and-volley, sometimes hit the drop-shot, sometimes slice and mix it up."

Goran Ivanisevic's thoughts will turn to Wimbledon, where he has been the runner-up on three occasions, after losing in the opening round here yesterday to the gifted Moroccan Hicham Arazi, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1. Carlos Moya, of Spain, avoided the ignominy of becoming the first defending French champion ever to lose his title in the opening round, recovering from two sets to love down to overhaul Markus Hipfl, of Austria, ranked No 85 in the world, 3-6, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

One of the highlights of the women's matches will come as early as the second round tomorrow, Martina Hingis, the world No 1, and Amelie Mauresmo, the sturdy Frenchwoman she defeated in the Australian Open final, having advanced for a long awaited rematch on the Centre Court.

Results, Digest, page 29