Tennis: Rusedski fights back from brink

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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI'S resolve was equal to the challenge of an epic opening match at the United States Open yesterday. The British No 1 saved two match points and prevailed against South Africa's Wayne Ferreira 4-6, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 after three hours and eight minutes.

From the start, Rusedski's reputation at the US Open was in the balance. Would this be the start of another journey to the final, or a first-round loss to go with three others on his previous visits to Flushing Meadow?

A set and a break down after 39 minutes, it seemed that the sixth-seeded Rusedski might not have had time to rebuild the form and fitness lost after he injured his left ankle shortly before Wimbledon. Rusedski showed signs of uncertainty, seemingly unable to decide whether to wear a cap, a headband or play bare-headed. He also changed his racquet innumerable times. Although able to stop Ferreira taking a two-set lead, helped by the South African's double-fault for 30-40 when serving at 5-4, Rusedski continued to look second best to win the match.

Having won the tie-break 7-2, Rusedski took an injury time-out before the start of the third set, causing concern that the ankle might be troubling him again. Fears were eased when the trainer lanced a blister on the big toe of Rusedski's left foot - painful, but not enough to ruin the Briton's challenge.

Towards the end of the match he even dispensed with the ankle support he has worn since the injury at Queen's. Rusedski's prospects did seem about to drain away after he failed to secure a tie-break at 5-6 in the set. He was broken from 30-0, missing a backhand volley and netting a backhand to offer Ferreira an opportunity. The South African, who will be remembered as the man who eliminated Britain's Tim Henman in the second round last year, secured it with a magnificent backhand drive down the line.

The Briton surprised many observers with the spirit of his play in the fourth set. Having broken for 3-2, his momentum carried him so far that he leapt the net in the process of hitting a forehand volley in the seventh game, forfeiting the point.

Ferreira, sometimes accused of brittleness, recovered the break for 4- 4 and held serve for 5-4. Rusedski, serving to save the match, double- faulted for 15-30 and netted a forehand volley for deuce. He eventually salvaged the game with an unreturnable serve and a forehand pass.

When the duel went to the tie-break, Rusedski took a 3-1 lead, Ferreira missing a backhand return. The South African pulled back to 3-3, only to dump an edgy backhand into the net to give Rusedski a 5-3 advantage. Rusedski, unable to hold at 5-4, created a set point at 5-6, with Ferreira serving, only to miss with a return.

Ferreira netted a backhand return on his second match point at 7-6, a relieved Rusedski then producing a winning second serve and went on to take the shoot-out 9-7 when Ferreira hit a forehand over the baseline. The final set was packed with excitement and impromptu shot-making, Rusedski winning on his second match point when Ferreira netted a forehand. The victory brings Rusedski a second round meeting with Bohdan Ulihrach, of the Czech Republic, ranked No 35.

Ferreira, who is level 4-4 with Rusedski in their head-to-head, did not consider that the Briton's game had changed a great deal since they first played in 1994. "If you don't do well with a serve like that then there is something wrong," the South African said. "I played as well as I could. I didn't let up. It was just an unfortunate match for me."

Asked to compare Rusedski and Henman, Ferreira said: "I still think that Tim is a better player than Greg. If you take away the serve, Tim is by far the better all-round player."

Britain's woman No 1, Sam Smith, was unable to advance beyond the first round. The Essex player was defeated by Sweden's Asa Carlsson, 6-2 6-4.

The former champion, Steffi Graf, is only three wins from overtaking Martina Navratilova as the biggest prize earner in the women's game. A place here in the United States Open quarter-finals would give the former world champion the $63,970 (around pounds 40,000) she needs to pass Navratilova's $20,344,061 (pounds 12,715,000).

Graf, the No 8 seed, will need to improve on yesterday's form, when she was taken to three sets in her opening match against Corina Morariu, a determined 20-year-old from Detroit, ranked No 32. Graf, a 6-2, 3-6, 6- 1 winner, may vent her frustration after making so many unforced errors - 15 of them in the second set - on her second-round opponent, Marlene Weingartner, an 18-year-old German qualifier, ranked No 153.