Tennis: Rusedski out of Albert Hall event

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The years will roll back at the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon when Bjorn Borg plays John McEnroe on a British court for the first time since the 1981 Wimbledon final. Yesterday, however, the non-appearance of one of the current generation, Greg Rusedski, was the talk behind the scenes at the Honda Challenge. When the golden oldies began to take the court at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday, Greg Rusedski, the British No 1, was conspicuous by his absence from the supporting cast of doubles players.

The organisers had been informed on Wednesday night that Rusedski would not be able to participate because of a back injury.

"We're very disappointed to hear Greg is injured," Peter Worth, the tournament chairman said. "But we do find it peculiar that the morning after pulling out he had apparently been practising hard and hitting the ball well. He has assured us he will play the event in future, and we wish him well in his recovery."

Rusedski's withdrawal meant that the doubles event, a mixture of current ATP Tour players and prominent names from the past, had to be altered, and Tim Henman ended up partnering his coach, David Felgate. They opened the round-robin with a win against John Lloyd and Peter McNamara.

"I'm delighted to be supporting an event in London," Henman said. "It's disappointing that Greg's not here. There didn't seem to be too many problems with him on the practice court this morning."

Tony Pickard, Rusedski's coach, explained that the big-serving left-hander is still troubled by the injury to his lower back that caused him to retire during the recent ATP Tour Championship in Hannover. "It just has not healed," Pickard said. "His back has locked three days in a row. We practised at Wimbledon on Monday and Queen's on Thursday. It happened both times. It's not just a matter of his serving. It happens all the time."

Pickard said he had been in favour of Rusedski playing in the event. "I told him it would be a good thing to play these three light-hearted matches, but we've taken the view that it's better to pull out before this tournament than during a match.

"The young man has been in a mess for two days. He cannot confidently go into a match, no matter how light-hearted. The important thing is to get himself absolutely right for the new year. It's not a con."

John McEnroe received a warm welcome when he walked out to play his opening round-robin match against the wily Argentinian Guillermo Vilas, aged 45. McEnroe, 38, did not take long to find his range and touch, and, true to form, he quickly found fault with some of the line calls. He was also warned for tossing his racket and swearing.

McEnroe won, 6-3, 6-3, a splendid warm-up for this afternoon's long-awaited contest between McEnroe and his great rival Bjorn Borg.

Of all those who have particular memories of Borg, few are as poignant as Henri Leconte's recollection of his meeting with the Swede in Monte Carlo in 1983. Leconte's victory there marked the end of an era.

The flamboyant Frenchman still hesitates when asked to comment. "I don't like to talk about Bjorn, because he's my hero," he said yesterday after entertaining spectators with a 6-3, 6-2 win against South Africa's Johan Kriek.

But did Leconte believe that Borg really meant to disappear from the game when he first retired, having won five consecutive Wimbledon singles titles and six at the French Open?

"Definitely," Leconte said, adding that he was more surprised by the Swede's abortive comeback in 1991. "I played him in Stuttgart and he still had a wood racket and tried to play the same way, but he was not fast enough. The generation had changed. But now, on the senior tour, Bjorn is moving well and playing good."

That was evidenced last night when Borg defeated Britain's John Lloyd 7-6, 6-3.