TENNIS: Henman to eclipse tame Rusedski

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TIM HENMAN, 24, and Greg Rusedski, 25, marked their birthdays yesterday - celebrate hardly being the word in Rusedski's case. The big serving left-hander's United States Open campaign had foundered in the third round, and he is about to drop out of the world's top 10 and lose the British No 1 ranking to Henman.

Although Henman suffered a customary blip during his match against Michael Kohlmann yesterday, he steadied his game to defeat the German qualifier, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4. Shortly afterwards, Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, retired from Henman's section of the draw because of a knee injury. Henman previously reached the fourth round in 1996, losing to Sweden's Stefan Edberg in the days when a glimpse of Flushing Meadow made British players homesick.

Rusedski, a finalist last year, was unable to outlast the Dutchman Jan Siemerink in five error-strewn sets on Saturday night, a marathon too many. At one point Rusedski hurled his racket to the ground and admonished it like Basil Fawlty. The manic cameo exemplified Rusedski's frustration.

He went the distance three times, playing 15 sets in nine hours and 10 minutes. He saved two match points against the South African Wayne Ferreira, one against the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach, and three against Siemerink, who hit an ace on a fourth to win, 4-6, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4. The Labor Day weekend is supposed to be a holiday.

Henman, while emphasising the dangers of facing a player who, like Kohlmann, ranked 149, had won three matches in qualifying and two in the main draw, added: "I don't think my struggle today actually had so much to do with my opponent. I think it was a lot more to do with the conditions. The wind was coming from all direction and there was a real glare on the court."

The glare was sometimes directed at the umpire, Norm Cryst, who was told by Henman to "wake up, sharpen up and show more intensity - the ballboys keep dropping the ball". Henman admitted afterwards that he had lost his concentration. "I felt like I needed to get more aggressive, a bit more fired up. I just wanted to make sure the umpire was concentrating. I played ugly tennis at times, but I got there in the end."

Rusedski has done well considering the turmoil of his summer since turning an ankle at London's Queen's Club in June. The injury cost him any chance of success at Wimbledon, led indirectly to a parting from his coach, Tony Pickard, and put him out of action for two months.

The man's ambition is as strong as his serve. His progress here last year projected him towards 52 weeks among the game's elite and enabled him to sweep the British sports personality awards. He spent his birthday nursing disappointment. "I just don't like to be mediocre," he said.

Many happy returns might be construed as sarcasm given the woeful state of Rusedski's counter-punching against Siemerink, a fellow left-hander who vied to make more errors.

Losing in the third round cost Rusedski 550 ATP Tour computer ranking points. He is expected to fall to No 13 or No 14. Henman, No 13 going into the tournament, has already done enough to improve his position. "He deserves to go back to the top [of the British rankings]," Rusedski said. "He had a great run at Wimbledon and he's played well here."

Rusedski will not play on the clay courts at Bournemouth next week. His next appearance will be in the Davis Cup World Group promotion play- off against India at Nottingham, from 25 to 27 September.

British supporters trust that a refreshed Rusedski will find greater consistency on his first serve and a marked improvement on his ground- strokes. Siemerink demonstrated how vulnerable Rusedski can be against a net-rushing opponent. The Briton's backhand appeared to have regressed 18 months, and the Dutchman tortured him with shots to the feet.

Don't mention the feet, as Fawlty might say. Foot-faults contributed to Rusedski's ire, one particular call on a second serve leading to his being broken for 1-2 in the fourth set. "That was impossible," Rusedski told the umpire. "Thank you for changing the match."

Having had time to calm down, Rusedski said: "It was a tough call, but these things happen. You have to get over them and move on. I don't think I would have put myself in such difficulties if I'd had a higher percentage of first serves. In the end he was just all over me."

Martina Hingis, the defeding champion, will play Monica Seles in the women's quarter-finals. Seles was taken to three sets by the American Kimberly Po and Hingis survived an edgy opening set to beat Nathalie Dechy, of France, 6-4, 6-4. Jana Novotna eliminated Irina Spirlea, 6- 3, 6-3.