Tennis: Regal Rusedski cruises into final

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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI is enjoying a memorable weekend, having reached both the singles and doubles finals in straight sets at the Guardian Direct Cup at Battersea. The singles win came in such swift fashion that he even impressed himself.

After putting away Morocco's Hicham Arazi 6-2 6-3 in 53 minutes Rusedski readily agreed he was "really pleased" with his performance. "I played sound tennis and controlled the match," he added. "Hicham did not play as well as he can, though perhaps he wasn't allowed to."

Rusedski can be permitted that self-satisfied comment because his game is coming together marvellously after a dreadful start to the year. He has performed with increasing confidence in this tented tournament and yesterday his power was simply too much for Arazi, who was giving away seven inches in height and quite a lot of muscle. It was the second time at Battersea that Rusedski had seen off a fellow left-hander in straight sets, Petr Korda having been the previous victim.

This match confirmed that Rusedski's confidence, more brittle than that of most touring professionals, has been restored for the moment. He stands only one match away from the first prize of pounds 80,000 and another 260 points, which would strengthen his hold on 10th place in the rankings but not move him any higher.

One place above Greg in the standings is Richard Krajicek, who defeated Thomas Johansson 6-2 6-4 in the other semi-final last night after flying back to Holland by private jet yesterday morning to attend the funeral of his friend and Davis Cup colleague, Menno Oosting.

The fact that the setting was a tent might have been expected to encourage Arazi, who was born in Casablanca but now makes his home in the tax-exile land of Monte Carlo. The 25-year-old, who used to prepare for matches by getting his coach to read poetry to him, looks as if he should belong to a less brutal era, with his sliced shots and gentle placements. One of his first serves trundled over the net at 95 miles an hour - for a winner. In contrast Rusedski landed one on target at 143mph.

The surface at Battersea, carpet on wood, is perfect for the restoration of Rusedski's well-being. It offers quick, low bounce and encourages attacking, which the British No 2 has not been slow to notice. It was, therefore, a surprise when, on winning the toss, Arazi chose to let Rusedski serve. Perhaps he was hoping Rusedski might be slow out of the blocks. If so, he was to be disappointed. The only point Rusedski conceded was a double-fault.

Things rapidly became worse for Arazi when he dropped his own serve as an extravagant back swing propelled a forehand out. Soon it was 3-0, to the delight of a full house which included a raucous Rusedski support group, as the Briton held serve to love with a rocketing ace, one of the six he sent down.

The first set was over in only 27 minutes when Arazi was broken for a second time as he perpetrated his first double-fault. Already he was starting to hold his head in his hands and bemoan his upcoming fate. Rusedski had dropped only three points on serve, and two of those were double-faults.

Rusedski opened the second set with another love game but then ran into his only brief spell of doubt as Arazi conjured his first - and only - break point. When he needed to Rusedski responded belligerently, winning the next three points with powerful first serves.

The break Rusedski had been looking for was gained in the sixth game when he was at his very best. On one point he drew Arazi into the net before majestically passing him with a thunderous forehand. Arazi went break point down when a desperation "hot dog" (a shot hit between his legs) cleared the netting only to be tucked away by his opponent. Arazi saved that break point but when Rusedski conjured another one the Moroccan dropped serve with a backhand which floated just beyond the baseline.

From there on all Rusedski needed to do was hold service twice and he did it with ease. It was somehow typical of Arazi's disappointing show that on match point he plonked a lame forehand service return low into the net.

Rusedski and Tim Henman, who are playing together in readiness for Britain's Davis Cup tie against the United States in April, showed their rapidly blending teamwork by beating the 1996 French Open champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek 6-4 6-4. In today's final they will now face Wayne Ferreira of South Africa and the Zimbabwean Byron Black.