Tennis: Henman wins but Rusedski bows out

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WITH A HUGE sigh of relief Tim Henman gained a place in the semi- finals of the pounds 463,000 Stella Artois Championships last night after edging out the Slovak Karol Kucera in a third set tie-break, 7-5. The British No 1 will not, however, be renewing his rivalry today with Greg Rusedski, his Davis Cup team-mate, who was mesmerised by Sargis Sargsian, the only Armenian tennis player of note, with the possible exception of Andre Agassi, whose roots there, through his father, are as strong as Rusedski's in Yorkshire.

Sargsian, who has been known to solve Rubik's Cube in three minutes, turned Rusedski inside out in 64 minutes. The result, 6-2, 6-4, may conjure lines such as "Sarge subjects Rusedski to corporal punishment on the way to Wimbledon", but the 26-year-old from Yerevan has a game much more subtle than that.

Rusedski was undone by Sargsian's speed and guile, as were Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was toppled from his precarious perch as the world No 1 in the second round, and Australia's Scott Draper, the defending champion, in the third round. None of the three would have been fooled by Sargsian's world ranking: No 74.

Nor will Henman, the No 3 seed, whose all-court style may prove more difficult for Sargsian, with the proviso that the 24-year-old from Oxford makes fewer mistakes than he did against the wily Kucera, the No 14 seed. After winning the opening set, 6-1, Henman found himself playing from the back of the court more often than was comfortable.

Although recovering from 1-3 in the second set, Henman was unable to capitalise in a tie-break, double-faulting on Kucera's fourth set point to lose the shoot-out, 6-8. The final set followed a similar pattern, Henman again retrieving a 3-1 deficit and forcing a tie-break. This time Kucera double-faulted and then overhit a backhand on two service points for the match at 5-4. The Slovak finally missed a forehand with Henman serving for the match at 6-5. Henman won 6-1, 6-7, 7-6 in two hours and 24 minutes.

Sargsian who, unusually, names slow clay and fast grass as his favourite surfaces, honed his game for the Queen's Club lawns by winning the Powder Byrne Trophy at Surbiton last week after losing early at the French Open in Paris.

Rusedski, so impressive against the South African Wayne Ferreira on Thursday, put on a brave face after yesterday's performance before preparing to complete his preparations at next week's Nottingham Open. "It's better this happened here and not Wimbledon," he said.

While crediting Sargsian for a splendid display, Rusedski said his own game was never in gear. "I never relaxed into the match," he said. "I was too uptight." Rusedski added that he thought his opponent was also nervous at the start of the match. If so, Sargsian managed to conceal his discomfort. He must be as fluent in body language as he is in Armenian and English (he has lived in Florida for the past six years).

"He was moving, diving, ducking," Rusedski said. "He's one of the best movers on the grass I've seen in a long time. I don't think it's a set- back for me at all. I'm disappointed I couldn't turn the match around today, but I've had three matches here, and I'm just going to centre on the things I have to improve so that I can play like I did against Ferreira."

Rusedski said it did not cross his mind that his grass court season had foundered on this day at Queen's 12 months ago, when he damaged an ankle while playing a third round match against Italy's Laurence Tieleman on Court No 1. "That's forgotten," he said. "And this was just one of those days you have from time to time. It's one match - back to work!"

Setting aside partisan concern that Rusedski may now be rocky going into Wimbledon, where he is one of the favourites, it was a treat to see Sargsian bring such marvellous touch to a scene usually dominated by power. "I was a little surprised I was getting so many serves on my racket," he said. "I was expecting more aces. I was also surprised how much support I got. A lot of people were pulling for me as well as for Greg."

Signs that Rusedksi might have taken the contest into a third set disappeared after he was unable to convert any of three break points in the eighth game of the second set, netting a backhand return on the first, seeing his opponent save the second with a high forehand volley and failing to keep a backhand in play on the third.

It may be of little consolation to Rusedski to know this, but Sargsian confessed that he would need more than three minutes to do Rubik's Cube at a moment's notice. "I haven't done it for a long time," he said, "so I would have to go into a room for an hour to refresh my memory."

Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian No 14 seed, advanced to the semi-finals with a 7-5, 6-4 win against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, the runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 1997. Hewitt's words in celebration were probably more temperate that those he used while adressing a line judge, for which he received a code violation.

Hewitt's reward for winning is to play Pete Sampras, who defeated Goran Ivanisevic 7-5, 6-4 and goes back to No 1, at least until the end of Wimbledon, equalling Ivan Lendl's record total of 270 weeks at the top.

Results, Digest, page 31