Tennis: Rusedski draws the short straw as he joins the elite

tennis: atp tour world championship
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The Independent Online
Britain's Greg Rusedski has been placed in the same group as Pat Rafter, who defeated him in the United States Open final, and Pete Sampras, the world No 1, in the round-robin segment of the ATP Tour World Championship, which starts today in Hannover. John Roberts assesses his prospects.

It was the shortest draw of Greg Rusedski's career and the sweetest, but only in the sense that he is proud to be here in Hannover as Britain's first representative among the world's elite eight at the ATP Tour World Championship.

The extent of Rusedski's awesome challenge will crystalise today, depending on the outcome of the first of his three round-robin matches, a reprise of his United States Open final against Australia's Pat Rafter. Pete Sampras, the world No 1 and defending champion, is also in the Red Group with the two other big servers. Sampras opens the proceedings against Carlos Moya, the Spanish baseliner he outclassed in the final of the Australian Open.

Michael Chang, heads the White Group. The American world No 2 plays Moya's compatriot Sergi Bruguera today. Two other groundstroke specialists, Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden, and Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, complete the picture.

Luciano Pavarotti made the draw. In opera terms, grouping Sampras with Rafter and Rusedski was akin to placing Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and himself on the same stage.

As a physical presence, Pavarotti would qualify for next week's World Doubles Championship in Hartford, Connecticut. However, although less than impressed with the acoustics of Hall 13 at the Expo 2000 complex here, the great tenor was on song when inaugurating the new arena on Sunday evening.

With $3.3m (pounds 2.2m) on offer this week, Hall 13 is bound to be lucky for some. "It's very special to be here," Rusedski said. "It was always going to be tough playing at this level, but if I didn't think I could win I wouldn't turn up.

"I predicted before the draw that I would be in the same group as Sampras and Rafter, but I thought I would be playing Sampras first. Playing in the same group as them means it will be a good week for me, a chance to see if I can take another step up. It's just the beginning of the adventure, shall we say?''

Rafter defeated Rusedski in four sets in the Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadow, New York, in September and has won three of their four matches. "I learnt a lot of things from that match," Rusedski said. "I think I'll have a good game plan tomorrow.''

Nottingham's Tony Pickard, who took over as Rusedski's coach from the American Brian Teacher shortly after the US Open, said, "If Greg didn't learn from that match he's not the man I think he is.''

Rusedski has lost all five of his matches against Sampras, two of them this year. A wrist injury caused him to retire during their final in San Jose in February after he had won opening set. Rusedski and Moya are tied at 1-1, the Spaniard having lost to him at on clay in the semi-finals at Bournemouth.

Yesterday Rusedski practised with Bruguera on the concrete court, having reported himself fit and well after recovering from the stomach virus which struck him in Stockholm last week.

Although the court is not as fast as the carpets normally associated with indoor tournaments, Rusedski agreed that it represents a fair surface for various styles of play. The higher bounce of the ball is similar to the courts Rusedski and Rafter prospered on at the US Open.

Bruguera, a former French Open champion, considered the court here to be slow enough to allow spectators to "see more tennis", but felt that the balls being used would favour the big servers. "The balls are very big and very heavy," the Spaniard said.

The colour of the court is one factor that might help Bruguera and his fellow baseliners psychologically. The sandy hue could be mistaken for the slow clay of the French Open. Sampras, Rafter and Rusedski have what it takes to prove that any similarity is just a mirage.

ATP Tour Championship

Red Group

Pete Sampras (US)

Patrick Rafter (Aus)

Greg Rusedski (GB)

Carlos Moya (Sp)

White Group

Michael Chang (US)

Jonas Bjorkman (Swe)

Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Rus)

Sergi Bruguera (Sp)

Today's matches

Sampras v Moya

Rafter v Rusedski

Chang v Bruguera