Tennis: Henman hoping to put Rusedski in the shade

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The Independent Online
Greg Rusedski has been elevated to No 1 seed at the $1m Qatar Open after the withdrawal of the injured Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Tim Henman, last year's runner-up, has world ranking points to defend. John Roberts reports from Doha.

The notion of British tennis players in a desert would have been apposite a few years back, except that few were good enough to compete in a $1m (pounds 620,000) event anywhere. Today, Greg Rusedski, BBC sports personality of 1997, is the top seed for the Qatar Mobil Open, and Tim Henman is determined to improve on his runner-up spot. We might even see an all-British final, Telford with dunes.

Rusedski opens against Juan Albert Viloca, ranked No 73, one of the clay- court talents from Barcelona, and is projected to play Sergi Bruguera, the Spanish master, in Sunday's final. The British No 1 is in the same half of the draw as Goran Ivanisevic and Magnus Larsson. The quarter-finals may bring the Frenchman Fabrice Santoro or Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson.

Henman, the fifth seed, also has a first round match against a Spaniard, the experienced Javier Sanchez, ranked No 54. The 23-year-old from Oxford may play the brilliant, if sometimes erratic, Petr Korda, seeded No 3, in the last four, and Bruguera or Andrei Medvedev in the semi-finals.

Prize-money and ranking points aside, the Qatar tournament offers competitors a useful way to break their journey to Australia in preparation for first of the season's Grand Slam championships. Doha's Khalifa Tennis Complex was modelled on the All England Club, one notable difference being that the courts are not lawns but rubberised concrete, a replica of the Rebound Ace surface at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne Park.

Three other British players endeavoured to qualify for the main draw. Andrew Richardson lost in the second round against Jan Kroslak, of Slovakia, the No 1 qualifying seed. Barry Cowan also won a match before falling to Lars Burgsmuller. Chris Wilkinson was beaten in the first round by Oscar Burrieza.

Away from the practice courts, Rusedski and Henman have been able to relax and enjoy their stay on this peninsula on the west of the Persian Gulf, Rusedski riding a dune buggy, Henman a jet ski. Fortunately, they have avoided any mishaps, which cannot be said for the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Seeded No 1 until shortly before the draw was made on Saturday night, Kafelnikov had to withdraw because of an injury to his right knee. The pain flared up while Kafelnikov was practising, but tennis was not the cause of the injury. Kafelnikov, the 1996 French Open champion, twisted the knee on a skiing trip during the Christmas holidays.

Advised to rest for a fortnight, the Russian is likely to miss the Australian Open for the second consecutive year. On the eve of last year's first Grand Slam championship, Kafelnikov damaged a hand taking a swing at a punchbag while messing around in a Melbourne gym. He was off the ATP Tour for three months.

Although there was no indication of a knee problem when Kafelnikov arrived in Doha on Friday, his face was slightly the worse for New Year's celebrations in Frankfurt. The red blisters transpired to be the traces of a fancy firecracker that went off just above his head.

Life here is rather more subdued. This year, for the first time, the Qatar tournament coincides with Ramadan. Play is not scheduled to start until 6pm (3pm GMT), after the day's fasting. The only sign of hunger among the players is related to ambition.

Henman has recently altered the tone of his "friendly rivalry" with Rusedski, revealing his envy at the amount of attention his Davis Cup team-mate has attracted. Simply, Henman is sick of seeing Rusedski receive awards. There is a remedy for that, and it can only help the British game.