Tennis: Henman, Rusedski forced indoors

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The Independent Online
The Nottingham Open would be lucky to attract a player of the slightest note if it did not provide competition on grass a week before Wimbledon. So what happened yesterday? The quarter-finals were forced indoors because of the rain.

That might not be on the same scale as deciding the second Test at the Lord's Indoor Cricket School, but it was hardly ideal. Henman and Rusedski kept alive the hopes of an all-British final for the first time in the Open era by respectively beating Grant Stafford 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 and Jason Stoltenberg 6-3, 7-6. Whether they are damaging their Wimbledon hopes in the process is open to question. Both made light of it, but with the Championships due to start on Monday fatigue could be a problem.

The weather and the organisers' need to get matches played conspired yesterday to create an eerie atmosphere. The paying public, who were refunded for the lack of action, were not allowed indoors for security reasons and had to watch through a window 50 yards away.

The players arrived on court accompanied only by the sounds of knives and forks being used in the canteen next door and the beating of rain on the hanger-like roof. "The crowd went wild," Henman said sardonically as he passed the umpire's chair.

"It was one of the quietest starts to a set I've had in my professional career," he said later. "It was easy to concentrate because there was nothing else going on. When there are 3,000 people round the court, there's plenty of distractions." In fact the crowd, excluding media, numbered precisely two - Wendy, Stafford's wife, and a companion.

Henman, settled overnight on one set all, looked likely to be outgunned when he lost his serve in the sixth game and was facing match point at 4-5. Stafford squandered that chance with a double-fault, however, and then three more when he took a 6-3 lead in the tie-break. Henman, who improved on his patchy performances of the week, won five points in a row to triumph 3-6, 6-3, 7-6.

"The quality of play from both of us was excellent so to come through a single set in a pressurised situation was very good," the British No 1 said. "I didn't expect to be playing indoors on cement, that's for sure, but it's more matches and that's something I said I needed before this week. To come through my last two matches 7-6 in the final set is very satisfying. It shows I'm fighting hard."

Rusedski had an easier time of things, breaking Stoltenberg in the first game of the match and then taking the second-set tie-break 7-4. "I'm getting more consistent," he said. "I'm not playing so many loose points."

The semi-finals and final are scheduled for today but if the rain intervenes again there is the prospect of the pounds 28,000 first prize being decided tomorrow, the day before Wimbledon is due to start. "It's frustrating for us, it's frustrating for the organisers and it's frustrating for spectators," Henman said. "At the end of the day there's not a lot people can do about it.

"I'd love to be in the final no matter what day it's on. If it's Sunday so be it; I'll be in London by the evening. I flew from Doha, Qatar, to Sydney, half-way round the world, and played on the day I arrived so Nottingham to London shouldn't be too difficult."

Rusedski, who faces the seventh seed, Mark Philippoussis, in Wimbledon's first round, might not agree.