Tennis: Rusedski powers into fourth round

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GREG RUSEDSKI yesterday became Britain's first representative to reach the last 16 of the men's singles at the French Open since Buster Mottram in 1977, a few weeks before Virginia Wade became the nation's last Wimbledon singles champion.

Rusedski, who reached the last 32 as a Canadian on his debut at Stade Roland Garros in 1994, defeated the Italian Davis Cup player Davide Sanguinetti 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. Sanguinetti, ironically, performed as surprisingly on grass to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals last year as Rusedski has on the clay of Paris.

Although Rusedski's oft-quoted joke of the clay court season is that there is more chance of a UFO landing in Britain than of his winning the French Open singles title, spectators here are already asking: "Is it a plane? Is it a bird? Is it a Rusedski serve?" In the fourth round he plays Marcelo Filippini, a 31-year-old qualifier from Uruguay, whose world ranking, No 140, is not the best guide to his proficiency on clay.

"This is his best surface, and he's got a great one-handed backhand," Rusedski said. "I know his ranking and that he's a qualfier, but he hasn't lost a set in the tournament. It's another opportunity for me to test myself on the clay. I'm mixing up my serve, and I'm sticking with players when they don't think I can stick with them from the back."

Tim Henman, the British No 1, should have been carrying the flag with Rusedski in the fourth round tomorrow, but was unable to sustain his form yesterday, losing disappointingly to the Spanish clay-courter, Alberto Berasategui, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. Henman, the No 7 seed, led by two sets and a break after an hour and 25 minutes. He then created two break points for 4-1 after being taken to the fifth set, eventually losing after being on the Suzanne Lenglen Court for three hours and 26 minutes.

Rusedski, seeded No 12, fought his way through a minor crisis in the second set, when he appeared to be tiring on Court No 1, which is also known as "The Bullring", and he was able to take control of the third set as emphatically as the first to win after two hours and three minutes.

Berasategui, who had been unable to cope with Henman's aggressive game for two and a half sets, found his range with his contorted forehand once Henman began to lose consistency on his first serve. "I was lucky in the end, because he broke me twice in the fifth set," the Spaniard said. "I thought my face was going to be like the fans from Bayern Munich, but now I think Tim's face is like the ones from Bayern. It's probably tough for him, but it's the game."

Henman was asked how much consolation he could take from his play in the first two sets. "None," he said. "It's irrelevant. For us at this level, it's about winning and losing. It's a tough match to swallow."

That is a positive attitude for Henman to adopt as his mind turns to the build-up to Wimbledon, which starts three weeks next Monday. The work he has put into the clay-court season should help his groundstrokes and stamina as he attempts to improve on last year's wonderful run at the All England Club, where he was defeated by Pete Sampras in the semi-finals.

Although he should be playing the Chilean Marcelo Rios in the fourth round here, it is worth remembering that Henman did not win a match in his previous three visits to the French Open. Rios, incidentally, is Henman's tip for the title.

Henman's mood was already beginning to lighten yesterday. Agreeing that his progress here would not harm his Wimbledon prospects, he said: "Yes, but as I said last night at dinner, I was four days behind on practice, but I think that's a good sign. Last year my results from Wimbledon onwards were chalk and cheese from the beginning of the year, so my standard now has moved on enormously from 12 months ago. I'm looking forward to the grass."

One thing that pleased Henman about his progress in Paris was that he had stuck to his natural game, adapting it only when the occasion demanded. "My game plan was very clear in my mind," he said. "I knew the way I wanted to play. I think I played that way.

"As today's match drew on, once I started to miss a few first serves, Berasategui definitely started to get a few more opportunities and started to return better. It was a confidence swing, a momentum change. I think I had to stick to my plan. Every time we seemed to get into rallies in the back, the angles he created didn't give me too many chances."

Serena Williams, the No 10 seed, struck her chair in frustration after losing to Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-3, 1-6, 6-0.

Results, Digest, page 29