Tennis: Rafter makes a winning return

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The Independent Online
THE TWICE US Open champion, Pat Rafter, survived some difficult early moments yesterday before winning his first match after a two-month lay-off through injury.

Rafter, currently the world No 4 but with the top ranking firmly in his sights this year, beat Japan's Takao Suzuki 6-3, 6-0 to reach the second round of the Australian men's hardcourt championships in Adelaide. "I didn't really start picking up a racket until after Christmas so my preparation hasn't been the most ideal coming into this tournament, but hopefully it will be for the Australian Open," he said.

Another player who considers himself a candidate to be No 1, the American Michael Chang, snatched a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win over the French qualifier Sebastien Grosjean. Chang, once ranked second but down now to 29th, said the top ranking was one of four career goals he had yet to achieve. "The other three are to win the remaining three Grand Slams I haven't won yet," he said.

At the age of 17 years and three months, Chang became the youngest man to win a Grand Slam tournament, the French Open in 1989, and has won an ATP title every year since 1988. However, he was plagued by injuries to his wrist and knee last year and finished out of the men's top 20 for the first time in a decade. However, he said he was never tempted to retire.

"I think sometimes people forget I'm only 26 years old," Chang pointed out.

Among those joining Rafter and Chang in the second round was the fifth- seeded Byron Black of Zimbabwe, who beat Vince Spadea 1-6, 7-6, 6-2 in temperatures exceeding 40C. But the former world No 1, Jim Courier, made an early exit from the tournament, beaten 7-5, 6-3 by Slava Dosedel of the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile in the Australian women's hardcourt championships on Queensland's Gold Coast, the No 3 seed, Irina Spirlea of Romania, overcame some early troubles to beat the Australian Rachel McQuillan, 7-6, 6-3. In another match, Australia's Annabel Ellwood took the first set against Anne-Gaelle Sidot of France. But after being down from an early break in the second set, Sidot fought back to record a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory. Sidot will next play the German Anke Huber, who defeated South Africa's Mariaan de Swardt, 6-3, 6-2.

Spirlea said she had been suffering with a head cold for a couple of days and had considered pulling out when she and McQuillan were 4-4 in the first set. "I was not feeling well at all," Spirlea said. "But I don't pull out."

In the next round, Spirlea faces Israel's Anna Smashnova, who defeated Latvia's Larissa Neiland 6-0, 6-3 yesterday.

On the west coast of Australia, Karol Kucera fought off a gallant challenge from the little-known Ivo Heuberger as Slovakia went on to claim a 2-1 victory over Switzerland at the Hopman Cup mixed teams tournament in Perth.

Kucera rallied to beat Heuberger, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, to put the defending champions on level terms after Martina Hingis had swept aside Karina Habsudova, 6-0, 6-3. Switzerland, with Hingis the holder of all four Grand Slam doubles titles, were favourites to win the decisive match, but Heuberger dropped serve three times in the opening set to put the Slovakians on their way to a 6-4, 6-0 upset.

Greg Rusedski has confirmed that he will appear in the Guardian Direct Cup, to be held in Battersea Park, London, next month.

Rusedski joins a top-class field that includes the reigning Australian Open champion, Petr Korda, the 1998 Wimbledon finalist, Cedric Pioline, and the former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek.

The British No 2 and world No 9 is keen not to repeat last year's first- round exit, to Germany's Marc-Kevin Goellner.

Rusedski said: "I'm really looking forward to playing in Battersea Park. The atmosphere was fantastic last year. I hope I can progress to the later stages this year and I am sure I can with the support of a home crowd."

The event will be staged in a giant marquee and begins on 22 February.