Tennis: Rusedski hopes to have final say

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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI stands on the brink of the victory of a lifetime at the Paris Open today. He faces the world number one, Pete Sampras, this afternoon to win one of the sport's most important titles after a rousing 6-3 4-6 6-4 semi-final win over Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

This will be Rusedski's fifth final of a year severely interrupted by his famously damaged ankle in the summer. He has won only one, in Antwerp last February, but will hope to disrupt a sequence of six straight losses to Sampras.

Rusedski has now won 28 matches indoors in 1998, the best total on the circuit, and over the past few days has rediscovered much of his old fluency and confidence. His net coverage and touch were of a particularly high order and compensated for serving which was indifferent by his normal standards. His 11 aces, which included one 134 mph projectile, were heavily discounted by nine double-faults.

Kafelnikov, who had put out Tim Henman and Marcelo Rios in earlier rounds in some style, did not look the same player yesterday. He was broken the first time he stepped up to serve, but the outcome of the match hinged on a lapse of manners by the Russian, who had criticised Henman for the very same thing three days earlier.

In the second set, disappointed at being broken as he served for the set, he slammed a ball high into the 12,000 crowd at Bercy Stadium and was given a conduct warning by the umpire, Rudi Berger.

That was classed as "ball abuse" and, after he had levelled the match by winning the second set, he again went break point down in the opening game of the final set as Rusedski struck a perfect backhand down the line. This time the Russian hurled his racket to the floor and broke it.

That was not only "racket abuse" but also, so to speak, self-abuse; stupidity of the highest order. Berger had no option but to dock him a point for a second offence and award the game to Rusedski.

After that the British player had only to hold his serve for the rest of the set to run out the winner and he clung on confidently to earn a tilt for the first prize of $393,000.

Oddly, if Kafelnikov had won this match it would have assured Tim Henman of a place in the eight-man field for the ATP World Championships in Hanover later this month. Rusedski's win keeps Henman waiting a little longer, though the possibility of both British players getting to Hanover cannot yet be discounted.

Kafelnikov counted out the possibility of a Rusedski victory. "He has no chance. Pete is a great number one. If you give him an opportunity he never misses, he makes 100 per cent out of nothing." Rusedski does not quite see it that way, despite the 0-6 record. "Every one of my matches with Pete has been a good one. I have played some good tennis against him and just come up a bit short. It will be a question of who serves well and who takes the chances. Hopefully I can do it."

Sampras, who beat Todd Martin 6-4 7-6, has enjoyed a long-standing domination over his fellow-American. Thirteen matches and three and a half years have passed since Martin last beat him and there is an air of inevitability about their matches these days. Martin seems to know his place properly belongs in the shadow of the great man.

Certainly the raucous capacity crowd were firmly in the Sampras corner. This tournament is the Paris blue-collar event compared with the elegance of Roland Garros during the French Open and the audience give vent to their uninhibited feelings with yells, cat-calls and screeches of approval or disapproval. Marcelo Rios had been jeered off after his lacklustre display on Friday but Sampras with his ailing back was a cherished favourite.

Late on Friday evening Sampras had taken out extra insurance in protection of his ranking by making a last-minute application for a wild card into the Stockholm tournament which begins tomorrow, the finale of the tournament season. It will be his sixth straight week in Europe.

"Mentally and physically it's been a long road trip and the body could use a rest," he said. "But I've got this goal of six consecutive years at number one that I want to achieve and if it means spending another week over here I'm willing to do that. It's a unique situation, something in tennis that might not ever be broken. If it doesn't happen it doesn't happen, but at least I gave myself the best chance possible."

Henman and Rusedski are seeded third and fourth for Stockholm. In the first round Rusedski faces the American-based German, Tommy Haas, while Henman plays the Swede Mikael Tillstrom.

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