Tennis: Rusedski finding his feet

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI and Pete Sampras registered a number of firsts at the Italian Open yesterday. Rusedski, who had not won a match in Rome, broke the habit at the fifth attempt with a 7-6, 7-6 victory against the Australian Scott Draper. It was Rusedski's first win of the clay court season, and his first on any surface since beating Germany's Hendrik Dreekman on concrete at the Lipton Championships, in Florida, in March.

Sampras, the winner of the Italian title in 1994, stepped on court for his first singles match since losing to Richard Krajicek in the Lipton quarter-finals, and for his first singles contest on clay since losing to Ramon Delgado, of Paraguay, in the second round of the French Open last June. The Wimbledon champion did well to recover from 2-5 in the final set to defeat the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6.

From a British standpoint, the fact that Rusedski was joined in the second round by Tim Henman raised another important statistic - 21 years have elapsed since two players, Colin Dowdswell and John Lloyd, achieved that much for the nation at the Italian Open.

Henman's victory against Daniel Vacek, of the Czech Republic, 7-5, 6- 3, was remarkable because for much of the match the British No 1 struggled to hold his own serve, let alone break his opponent's, and yet his resolve enabled him to recover from 0-3 in the second set and continue his progress on the sport's slowest surface.

Having saved two break points in the fourth game of the opening set, Henman unsettled Vacek by returning three smashes and passing him with a backhand on the opening point of the 11th game. Vacek double-faulted to 15-40, and Henman converted the second break point. He then double- faulted to 30-40 when serving for the set, but saved both that and a second break point before clinching the set with a service winner.

Vacek may have fancied his chances of taking Henman to a third set after winning the first three games of the second set, only to find that Henman is becoming almost as hard to budge on clay as he is on faster surfaces. His three other victories against Vacek were on concrete courts.

Rusedski, apart from falling face down while attempting to turn and hunt down a lob, found that his chief problems came in the opening game of the first set, when he had to save two break points, and towards the end of the second set, when he salvaged a set point, thanks to Draper's feeble swing at a second serve.

The British No 2 lost the opening point when serving in the first set tie-break, recovering to edge the shoot-out, 7-5, after 43 minutes. The second set tie-break was dominated by Rusedski, who took a 6-1 lead with his eighth ace and closed the match out, 7-3, on his third match point.

He has now won all six of his matches against Draper, a fellow left-hander and the reigning Stella Artois champion, this being their first meeting on clay. Draper, who has twice reached the fourth round at the French Open, provided sufficient opposition yesterday to raise Rusedski's low perception of his own game on the surface. "I still have to work on my movement and balance and on getting rallies started by getting my initial return right," he said, "and that will help, as long as I don't slip over my own two feet like I did on that lob point." In the second round today, Henman plays the Dutchman Jan Siemerink and Rusedski meets Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador.

It was not the first time Sampras had set foot on clay this season. He and Henman lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Paul Haarhuis in the first round of the doubles in Barcelona last month. Sampras then withdrew from the tournament because of an injury to his lower back.

Sampras managed to break Ulihrach for 4-5 when the Czech served for the match in the final set. Tension cost Ulihrach the initiative as he slumped to 15-40. But he then produced a wonderful drop shot to save one of the break points, only for Sampras to deliver a magnificent cross-court forehand to convert the second. The American went on to win the tie-break, 6-2.

Marcelo Rios, who won the German Open in Hamburg last Sunday, was eliminated in the first round here by Germany's David Prinosil, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.