Tennis: Korda and Kucera add to the turmoil and tension

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The Independent Online
IT MIGHT not rival the Millennium Dome, not to mention the local power station, but a temporary arena complex in Battersea Park is causing quite a stir in the tennis world this week. This is not solely because those bold Brits Greg Rusedksi and Tim Henman are in action, but also because a certain Slovakian has brought turmoil to the top level of the men's game.

Karol Kucera has much to answer for, not least for causing nerves to jangle as Petr Korda, Pat Rafter - and yes, even Rusedski - jostle for the chance to replace Pete Sampras as the world No 1. Kucera created the tension by defeating Sampras in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open last month. Oh yes, and Kucera was the chap who put Henman on edge by beating him in the final of the Sydney tournament, setting him on a roll of five consecutive defeats.

In Antwerp last week, Korda was on course to become only the 14th world No 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973. The Czech left-hander needed to win the European Community Championship. Who did he meet in the quarter- finals? Kucera, who beat him in three sets. Rusedski then eliminated Kucera in the semi-finals and went on to win the title, raising his world ranking to No 5.

Mind you, Korda did beat Kucera in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, going on to win his first Gland Slam title at the age of 30, a triumph which put him at Sampras's shoulder at No 2 in the world.

Kucera, ranked No 13, advanced to the second round of the Guardian Direct Cup yesterday here, saving a match point in a second set tie-break before overcoming the Frenchman Guillaume Raoux, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.

Korda, drawn to meet the Slovakian in the third round, also had a difficult afternoon yesterday, failing to convert two match points on David Prinosil's serve at 6-5 in the second set - a net cord denied him the second - and being pushed to a third set before winning, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4.

Although favourably impressed with the temporary arena, Korda was not at all pleased with the net-cord machine. "I had three lets in a row, 20 centimetres above the net," he complained. "That could have cost me the match. I'd rather have a human error."

Noted for his acrobatic celebrations, Korda restricted himself to a solitary cartwheel on this occasion - "I was too close to the net to do more" - before adjourning to the interview room, where he chuckled when questioned about his prospects of becoming No 1.

"It's only in the media," Korda said. "I'm very quiet about it. If it happens, great, but I have no problems. Just leave me to play my tennis and see what happens. I didn't have time to enjoy the momentum of fulfilling my dream of winning a Grand Slam. I just want to give the same 100 per cent performance as I did in Doha and Australia. If I win, OK, if I lose, I have given my best."

Korda's balanced sense of perspective was heightened, so to speak, after his victory in Doha last month, when he was introduced to Manute Bol, a 7ft 7in Sudanese basketball player who ranks as the world's second tallest man. "And I used to think I was pretty tall," Korda, who is 6ft 3in, said, shaking his head.

A dedicated family man, Korda tends to count the hours when parted from his wife, Regina, and five-year-old daughter, Jessica, who are currently at their home in Florida. Regina is expecting a second child in July, so Korda is anticipating a lonely Wimbledon.

Rusedski, who is due to play his first round match tonight against Germany's Marc-Kevin Goellner, needs to win both the title here and also next week's tournament in Rotterdam if he is to have a chance to overtake Sampras.

"I'm not thinking particularly about getting to No 1," he said. I want to improve and get to No 3 first. Then you have to be in the position Korda's in to start thinking about No 1."

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian No 3 seed, had a fairly swift and reasonably comfortable start to the tournament, defeating Thomas Johansson, of Sweden, 6-3, 6-2 in advancing to a second-round match against the Czech Daniel Vacek.

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