Tennis: Rusedski enjoys cake and the clay

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The Independent Online
The highlight of a hero's welcome for Greg Rusedski on his return from an unforgettable fortnight at the United States Open came at the end of the first set of his opening match in the Samsung Open at the West Hants Club yesterday.

As the British No 1 sat down and peeled a banana during a change of ends, one of his elderly supporters made her way along the side of the court with the aid of a zimmer frame, complete with a brake.

Before the banana was half consumed, Rusedski looked up to find the woman standing by his side, offering him her best wishes and a gift to mark his 24th birthday last Saturday.

Don Weir, the security officer, was on the scene. "It's OK, Don," Rusedski said, and went on to complete a victory against his Spanish opponent, Alberto Martin, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," Weir said afterwards. "I saw the woman earlier. She said she had lost her ticket, and was given a guest ticket. It was amazing how quickly she got down there from the corner of the court.''

Rusedski had arrived home in Chelsea on Monday evening to find 36 messages of congratulations on his telephone answering machine in response to his advance to the US Open men's singles final, in which he was defeated by Australia's Pat Rafter. After yesterday's match he was presented with a birthday cake by the Lawn Tennis Association.

The surface was slower than Flushing Meadow's concrete, and the arena would have been lost without trace in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, but it was beautiful day for tennis on the green, green clay of home.

Much to the encouragement of the LTA, the match had to be delayed to allow a crowd of 2,700 to file into the grounds, a scene reminiscent of British tennis in its heyday, long before Rusedski and his British rival Tim Henman were born.

There was no speed gun to tell whether Rusedski was serving in excess of 143mph, the record he set during Sunday's US Open final, and we were assured that the Mercedes logos on each side of the net were not gun sights for passes down the line.

When the players met for the toss, the 6ft 3in Rusedski dwarfed his his opponent. He realised, however, that Martin was likely to grow in stature once the rallies started on a court suited to the Spanish groundstroke style. Rusedski gave Martin a taste of his serving power in the opening game, one of his deliveries bruising the ribs of a ball boy.

Martin leaned back before serving, in the manner of an archer, but his deliveries, in the main, were merely the means of starting a point rather than finishing it. Rusedski broke for 3-1 and only paused in his rush through the first set to complain about an overrule by the umpire in the concluding game.

The opening set was over in 34 minutes and then Rusedski broke in the opening game of the second set. On the concluding point he out-rallied Martin in a duel which lasted 20 strokes, the last of which was a splendid forehand pass down the line.

Martin struck back immediately, breaking Rusedski in the next game and again in the 10th - worryingly, with a confident backhand service return down the line on set point.

Rusedski had two break points in the opening game of the final set, chiding himself - "Come on, hit it!" - after failing to covert either of them. He was more successful in the third game, teasing his opponent with a lob which the Spaniard returned over the baseline.

"Greg-o! Greg-o" came the shouts, Rusedski did not disappoint, breaking again for 5-2 and serving out the match after an hour and 39 minutes. He delivered 10 aces, but, as in New York, his improved groundstroke game continued to impress.

The cake was brought on, the crowd sang happy birthday, and Rusedski forgot about any lingering jet-lag. "I was pleased with the way I played today," he said. "My opponent today is a very good clay court player and can run down every ball. I was pleased to get by him.''

His next opponent, Australia's Richard Fromberg, is also adept on clay courts, but, whatever the outcome, Rusedski has accomplished a good deal by coming back from the biggest match of his career to make an appearance in this tournament.

"It's been a very special day," he said. "The crowd was great - even the lady who came to me with a present after the first set.''

Britain's other representatives were defeated in the second round. Chris Wilkinson lost to the No 2 seed, Felix Mantilla, 6-3, 6-2, Miles Maclagan took Marcos Ondruska to three sets before the South African prevailed, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5, and Danny Sapsford was beaten by Spain's Jacobo Diaz, 6- 3, 6-1.

n Tim Henman dispatched Russia's Alexander Volkov 6-3, 6-3 yesterday to advance to the quarter-finals of the President's Cup event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

n Steffi Graf will make her comeback after a knee injury break in an exhibition tournament in Baltimore in November.