Tennis: Pioline cool after call of the wild

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THIS TIME only his wild card entry could sustain any accusation of wildness on the part of Cedric Pioline at Nottingham.

Not a single swear word disturbed the peace as the Frenchman, defaulted from the event a year ago for directing an obscenity at a Chilean umpire, comfortably disposed of his underdog opponent, Kevin Ullyett, to confirm a triumphant return to the Nottingham Open and collect the pounds 38,000 winner's cheque.

It was very mannered and routine, all too gentle, in fact, for a centre court audience which appeared to have absorbed some of the depressing vibes dispensed by Greg Rusedski following his traumatic defeat by the champion-elect. Denied their choice finalist, the spectators struggled to embrace wholeheartedly a contest which gave Pioline his third tour title by 6-3 7-5.

"It's great to finish the week here with a win," said Pioline, who clearly prefers this ending to that of 12 months ago when he lost his cool over a missed let call and a normally implacable demeanour was shattered. "It was a very bad moment for me and I tried to put it aside this week. I did not think I would be able to play here but it all came good in the end."

Only in the first two wayward games, as he strained for control in a swirling wind, did the fairytale progress which had carried Ullyett through three qualifying rounds and seven matches in all look as if it might meet a magical conclusion. The second game was the first time Pioline's serve had succumbed all week, but thereafter Ullyett's workaday serve and volley game just did not carry enough bite to force the Frenchman to rethink his approach.

"It was a bad start for me but it was important that I stayed concentrated because I knew that he would give me chances," added Pioline, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week. "I am playing very good tennis and my serve is consistent. If I can stay at that level it could be an interesting next couple of weeks."

At Wimbledon, Pioline will hold on to the memory of 1997, when he was a surprise finalist. He said Pete Sampras might have to retire first before he can go one better - the fivetimes champion has a place in his half of the draw as do both Tim Henman and Rusedski. After ending British hopes here, he said that Rusedski was putting too much pressure on his thunderbolt deliveries and still had a lot of ground to make up. Yesterday, more diplomatically, his opinion was that both Henman and Rusedski had the game to do well over the coming fortnight.

Yesterday his Zimbabwean opponent was conveniently not over-demanding and, although Ullyett occasionally pulled out a dazzling winner, there was too little pressure on the Pioline serve.

Ullyett saved two break points in the eighth game of the second set, and a flashing forehand cross-court shot two games later promised to bring an end to things even earlier. An overhead smash kept Ullyett alive at that point but the pressure was unrelenting and two more accurate forehands swept Pioline to success in 88 minutes.

"I never really got into a rhythm on my serve and that is the key for me," the qualifier conceded. "I can't dig out volleys on my toes for two whole sets, but this has been a good week for me and I can't be too disappointed.

"I was playing doubles but, while you can get a good living from that, it was not stimulating enough and it is great to know that I can win singles matches again."

To gauge just how far he has travelled over the past few days, it is necessary to consider the fact that his ranking of 574 was too low for him even to gain a place in the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon. Now he will hurdle 300 or so places in one swoop, while the runner-up prize of pounds 21,000 is considerably more money than he has felt before.

There's no singles place for him at the All England Championships - but he will still feel at home in the doubles event. He has just moved into a flat around the corner in Wimbledon Village.