Tennis: Rusedski joins an unlikely exodus

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NO SOONER had the draw opened invitingly for Greg Rusedski at the Lipton Championships here than the British No 2 was packing his bags and joining the exodus. After dominating Germany's Nicolas Kiefer with his serve for almost two sets of their third-round match yesterday, Rusedski's resolve wavered and he was defeated, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Double-faults proved Rusedski's undoing. One cost him the second set after he had been two points from victory at 5-4; another put him 15-40 down on the way to being broken for 2-3; and three more for 2-5 virtually handed Kiefer the match. The German now plays Francisco Clavet, of Spain, in the quarter-finals. The 30-year-old Clavet, it may be remembered, cracked Rusedski's serve seven times in nine attempts in defeating him from a set and two breaks down in Dubai last month.

The day's events resulted in Pete Sampras being guaranteed to regain the world No 1 position from Carlos Moya in next Monday's ranking list. Moments before Rusedski stepped on to the Grandstand court to play Kiefer, Moya had been edged out of the Briton's half of the draw. The Spaniard was unable to convert any of three match points against the Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, ranked No 74, who took a third-set tie-break 11-9 on his second match point. The 20-year-old Grosjean, from Marseilles, had already served for the match twice. He won 3-6, 6-4, 7-6. Sampras later advanced to the quarter-finals with a 6-4, 6-4 win against Moya's compatriot, Albert Costa.

Notwithstanding the elimination of Rusedski and Henman here, Britain are developing into top dogs against the United States for the Davis Cup tie in Birmingham on the Easter weekend at such a rapid rate that it is starting to become slightly ominous for the home side. Yesterday Tom Gullikson, the United States captain, even pleaded with the American media to give wholehearted support to his team. So much for the gung-ho spirit.

Gullikson's rallying call was made under clear blue skies on the porch of the art deco Clevelander restaurant on Ocean Drive, South Beach, Miami. Last month a customer was murdered at the Clevelander, which is down the road from where Gianni Versace drank his last coffee.

The Stars and Stripes and Union Jack were draped side by side on the Clevelander's fence, in front of a table adorned by a miniature of Dwight Davis's silver punchbowl. Franklin D Roosevelt was in his first term in the White House the last time Britain beat America in the competition, Fred Perry leading a 5-0 whitewash in the Challenge Round at Wimbledon in 1935. But Gullikson was taking no chances, especially since Pete Sampras had started a chorus of "Americans don't care about Davis Cup" when declaring himself unavailable, along with Andre Agassi.

After confirming that Jan-Michael Gambill, he of the matinee idol looks, and Alex O'Brien, a doubles specialist, had been selected for his squad along with the seasoned Jim Courier and Todd Martin, Gullikson said: "My closing comments are for the American media. I'd really like everybody to really get behind the team in this tie. Be really positive. That would be a great thing for you to do." His words prompted a round of applause.

Gullikson was asked how the squad's morale was standing up, given the controversy over Sampras and Agassi, plus the revelation that the team's doctor, George Fareed, had lost his job. "Sometimes controversy can act as a positive," the captain said. "It can make you stronger, increase your resolve. Jan-Michael and Alex are committed to the Davis Cup. Everybody has their own reasons for playing or for not being available. I think playing for your country should always be your highest priority."

John McEnroe, who made his Davis Cup singles debut when Britain last played the United States, in the final at Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, California, in 1978, and was always passionate about playing for his country has been making noises from the senior tour about being good enough still to play doubles for the team. Gullikson was asked if had taken McEnroe seriously as a contender. "Not really," he said.

As for playing in Birmingham, Gullikson said the squad would be setting off next Saturday evening, and would be landing "somewhere in England". He was not sure if there were flights to Birmingham.

Statistics favour the Americans, with the head-to-head record against the combined force of the opposition giving them a 13-2 advantage. Martin leads Henman 3-1 and Greg Rusedski 4-1; Gambill leads Henman 2-0, but has yet to play Rusedski; Courier leads Henman 1-0 and leads Rusedski 3-0.

The one lingering doubt for Gullikson concerns Martin's fitness. Having been troubled by a strained stomach muscle since the Australian Open in January, the tall serve-volleyer decided to give the Lipton Championships here a miss in order to rest for Birmingham. "Todd's doing quite well," Gullikson said. "He's had a good week of working out his problems."