Tennis: Poor service sees Rusedski check out

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The Independent Online
ANYONE WHO has ever wondered what kind of player Greg Rusedski would be without a crashing first serve had a chance to find out yesterday and it was not a pretty sight. A skinhead Samson was sprightly in comparison.

The fastest serve in tennis disintegrated into a pile of double-faults and, shorn of his greatest weapon, he went out of the Nottingham Open at the semi-final stage 6-4, 7-6 to Cedric Pioline, who is not even ranked in the world's top 50. With Wimbledon looming it was not a timely defeat.

"Ten double-faults on grass is just too many," Rusedski said. "Cedric is a great player and he puts pressure on you. He mixed up his serve well and you have to give him credit for that."

What had happened to his own serve? "It's a technical thing," he replied. "I was trying to get into the net too quick instead of going up and extending. When I do that I get into trouble. A few thousand serves this weekend will solve it."

Pioline, a Wimbledon finalist two years ago, had told Nottingham's Centre Court on Thursday: "I will show no mercy, I am sorry for you." And, although he was joking, he was true to his word. Rusedski had only one break point against the Frenchman, in the fourth game, and, when he missed that, he did not even get to deuce again.

Not that he showed any frailty in an opening fusillade of serves that gave only the slightest hint of the problems that were to come. Missiles crashed through Pioline's defences and after four games of trying to focus on the ball as it threatened to cut him in half, the only points he had won had been from two double-faults.

Little did we realise how much of a precedent was being set by these lapses, but in the ninth game Rusesdki's serving rhythm deserted him like a bored lover. Ahead 30-15, he double-faulted twice to give his opponent his first break point. Although he survived that, a stinging passing shot gave Pioline another chance and another double-fault handed the Frenchman the game.

"Sometimes he wants to overhit the serve," Pioline said of Rusedski, "and that leads to double-faults." But there was no similar weakness from the Frenchman, who has yet to lose his serve this week at Nottingham, and the first set was wrapped up in 29 minutes.

Rusedski was beaten in four sets by Pioline in the Wimbledon quarter- finals two years ago and time has not improved the latter's impression of the Briton's ground strokes. "I know he's not a good returner," Pioline said. "Every time he plays me he has problems there. I don't think it is always the case but it is with me."

Certainly there was no great hint of an improvement yesterday and Pioline lost only seven points on his serve in the second set until the tie-break.

Rusedski was soon 3-0 down in that, throwing his racket in disgust after a weak backhand.

He retrieved the mini-break with a stinging passing shot of his own, but, with a chance beckoning, his serve buckled again with another double- fault. This time Rusedski responded with a shriek of anguish and might as well have been shouting farewell because Pioline wrapped up the tie- break 7-4.

Afterwards Rusedski was stressing the positive ahead of his first-round match against Jason Stoltenberg at Wimbledon. "I've got seven matches on grass going into the championships and I think that is enough tennis," he said. "The extra day might be a plus for me, a blessing in disguise."