Tennis: Japanese challenger unsettles Corretja

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TAKAO SUZUKI was ranked 116th in the world and had never before played at a Grand Slam event, yet yesterday found himself in Melbourne, playing on centre court in the Australian Open, where no Japanese man had managed to win a match since 1989.

Still, for much of his first-round duel with the second seed, Alex Corretja, Suzuki looked like he should have been the favourite. The Japanese 22- year-old pushed Corretja around with a game that sometimes had the Spaniard pinned in the corners and other times chasing delicate touch shots that dropped just over the net.

Suzuki served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set before Corretja combined deadly passing shots and a bit of luck to turn the match around and win 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2.

"He served unbelievably. Even his second serve was aggressive," Corretja said of his opponent.

Suzuki blamed "heavy legs" and an inability to put in more first serves for his loss. He said he was not nervous about playing on centre court, where his fans cheered him on with shouts of "Ganbare" ("Hang in there").

"I want to play again here," he added. "I think my game has improved," Suzuki, who moved into the top 125 in the rankings for the first time last year.

Last year, he won three titles on the Challenger circuit and reached the quarter-finals of an ATP Tour in Stockholm.

He was granted a wild card entry into the Australian Open, where no Japanese man has won a match since the now-retired Shuzo Matsuoka 10 years ago.