Tennis: Rejuvenated Rusedski puts Hewitt in his place

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VICTORIES BREED confidence, Greg Rusedski says, and at the rate he is progressing he is going to be knocking on the All England Club's front door on Monday with at least a trace of a swagger. Yesterday he reached the semi-finals of the Nottingham Open with arguably his finest win of the week.

After lurching from good against Gianluca Pozzi to bad against Jan-Michael Gambill in the second round, he beat one of the game's rising forces yesterday, the 18-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, 6-4, 7-5, and he is now just two matches away from repeating his 1997 win and the eighth title of his career. With no other seeds surviving, he should do it.

Particularly as his game went up several notches yesterday. His ground strokes had been a mistimed mess against Gambill, but against Hewitt his returns were all together more crisp. His game stands or limps by his first serve, of course, yet Hewitt took Pete Sampras to a third-set tiebreaker at Queen's Club last week so a straight-sets win over a player who is being talked about as a future Grand Slam winner was no mean feat.

"With every match I'm getting better," Rusedski said. "It was a very positive match, a very encouraging day for me. I was very pleased with the way I played, especially my return of serve."

Before Rusedski went on court yesterday he knew he would face a different challenge. Hewitt, a confirmed baseliner, returns with venom and charges round the court like his life depends on it. It works, because he has climbed 609 places in the world rankings in his first 18 months on tour.

You do not rise like that without talent so you wondered about Rusedski when he missed a chance to break in the sixth game. He made amends at 5-4, however, converting his fourth set point when Hewitt netted a forehand.

The long-haired, cap-wearing seventh seed broke back immediately and, at 3-1 up, he was on course to take the match to three sets. Or so it seemed, because at that point his game, so bright at the start, began to disintegrate and Rusedski won six of the next eight games.

Hewitt conjured the occasional spectacular pass but Rusedski increasingly appeared to have plenty in hand and he cruised to a 40-love lead against the serve in the 12th game, needing just the first of three match points.

He will now play the 1997 Wimbledon runner-up, Cedric Pioline, who beat Australia's Andrew Ilie, 6-2, 6-0. "That is going to be a good test for me in terms of my preparations for next week," Rusedski said. "Cedric is an incredibly good player on grass and he appears to be in tremendous form here."

The other semi-final will feature Germany's David Prinosil versus the Zimbabwean qualifier Kevin Ullyett, who sailed past Spain's Alberto Martin, 6-2, 6-1.