Tennis: Rusedski going green after Norman conquest

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Greg Rusedski will be among the first of the international set to settle his feet on the grass courts of England following his elimination in the opening round of the French Open in Paris yesterday.

It is fifth time that the Canadian-born Briton has bidden adieu after the first round of a Grand Slam tournament in his seven major championships since advancing to the fourth round at Wimbledon on his debut under the Union Jack in 1995. But at least there is scope for optimism in the weeks ahead.

For one thing, the British No 2 showed admirable resilience in retrieving a two-set deficit before losing to Sweden's Magnus Norman 9-7 in the fifth set. For another thing, Rusedski said he did not feel even a twinge from his rehabilitating left wrist after more than three hours of clay-court tennis involving longer points than on the faster surfaces.

It was only a pity that Rusedski was unable to impose his will on Norman sooner, and that he failed to complete a remarkable comeback from 3-5 in the final set. The match started at 11.10am, but Rusedski did not make his presence felt until the afternoon. "I was too tentative in the beginning," he said.

Norman, who first betrayed signs of edginess after disputing a line call in the opening game of the third set, appeared to be ready to crumble after double-faulting on his first match point at 5-3, 40-30. He then lost successive rallies as Rusedski levelled at 5-5.

The Swede had steadied himself by the time Rusedski served at 7-8, a backhand over the baseline leaving the Briton facing two more match points. He saved the first with a serve and backhand volley, but could only play a defensive backhand volley wide when Norman drove the ball to secure victory, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 9-7.

Rusedski returns to London today to practise on the lawns at Queen's Club. He is considering entering next week's Surrey Grass Courts Champion- ships at Surbiton before competing in the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's and completing his preparation for Wimbledon at the Nottingham Open.

Tim Henman, the only other Briton in the singles here, plays his opening round today against Olivier Delaitre, of France. Rusedski has suggested that he and Henman form a doubles partnership. There are two snags at the moment. Henman's coach, David Felgate, wants him to forgo doubles for the time being in order to rest his right elbow, and Henman already has a partner, the Dutchman Jan Siemerink.

Pete Sampras, the world No 1, was expected to struggle in his opening match against Fabrice Santoro. The Frenchman had won their two previous meetings on clay, and Sampras arrived here with a thigh strain. It did not appear to hamper the American yesterday. He won 6-3, 7-5, 6-1.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the defending champion, also made a comfortable start, defeating Martin Damm of the Czech Republic 6-2, 6-4, 6-1. But Spain lost Alberto Berasategui, the 12th seed and runner-up in 1994, who retired with cramp in his legs at 1-1 in the fifth set against Andrei Medvedev.

Thomas Muster, the 1995 champion, seemed to be on his way out against Germany's Marc Goellner, who led 4-2 in the final set. From this point the Austrian No 5 seed began to impose his will on the situation, and Goellner was unable to cope. Muster advanced, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4.

The 16-year-old Venus Williams was the focal point of the women's programme, making her entrance on Court No 1 in a shiny silver outfit, her hair a mass of white beads. The American won her first contest in a Grand Slam tournament, defeating Naoko Sawamatsu of Japan 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.

It was a minor epic, fought over two hours and 39 minutes. There were 17 breaks of serve, and Williams was 3-1 down in the third set. Characteristically, she did not bother to sit down during the changeovers until the match had been in progress for 50 minutes, by which time Sawamatsu was leading 3-0 in the second set.

The tall, athletic Williams worked her way out of trouble, which would have pleased her father/coach, Richard, who has remained in America. "He said he wasn't going to start a second career as a parent in the stands, his head going this way and that way, watching the ball," Venus explained.

She is travelling with her mother, and already has plans to make a visual impact at Wimbledon. "I had to do my hair over, and I decided not to put the blue and red beads back with the white ones until the US Open," she said. "Aren't the Wimbledon colours green and purple? I'm contemplating green and purple."