Tennis: Rusedski faces tough defence

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AFTER CALCULATING Sunday's rugby points from Twickenham with such glee, French sports enthusiasts may find counting tennis ranking points heavier going at this week's Paris Indoor tournament, even though 19 of the world's top 20 men are in action.

Not much of the mathematics will count as homework, since Cedric Pioline is the only Frenchman on the fringes in the race to qualify for the eight- man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover on 23 November. Pioline, in 15th place, is even more of an outsider than the two visiting "Rosbifs", Tim Henman (No 11) and Greg Rusedski (No 13).

Rusedski managed to qualify for Hanover as a substitute last year, having arrived at the Palais Omnisport de Paris-Bercy placed as low as No 17. But to make that leap, Rusedski had to win the event, defeating Pete Sampras, the defending champion, in three straight sets in the final.

Sampras returns to the court here for the first time since straining a hip in Indianapolis in August (a herniated disk in his lower back subsequently stopped him from playing the US Open). He has not competed indoors since San Jose in February.

Unlike last year, when he exhausted mind and body to end the season as the world No 1 for a record sixth consecutive year, Sampras has no reason for desperation. He is placed fourth in the Hanover race, and would like to qualify because "it would give me some momentum to carry into next year." The Californian might have taken those words out of Rusedski's mouth.

Having won two of his last three tournaments, reaching the semi-finals in Stuttgart last weekend, Rusedski is reasonably happy with his game and is anxious to be fit and in form for the start of next year.

Sampras and Rusedski are projected to meet in the quarter-finals, though neither will be thinking beyond their second- round opponent, having been given byes in the opening round.

Sampras is due to play Francisco Clavet, a 31-year-old Spanish clay-courter who normally would not be expected to trouble a match-tough Sampras on an indoor carpet. Clavet tuned up yesterday with a 6-4, 6-1 win against the Czech, Jiri Novak. Rusedski opens against either Albert Costa, of Spain, or Sweden's Magnus Norman.

Henman, who was embarrassed by Daniel Vacek, a Czech qualifier, 6-3, 6-1, in Stuttgart last week, will be tested by either Wayne Ferreira, of South Africa, or Sweden's Magnus Larsson in his opening match here. Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, may be waiting for Henman in the third round, and Andre Agassi, the world No 1, is a possible quarter- final opponent.

Agassi and Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov are the only two players who have already qualified for the Hanover eight.