TENNIS: Rusedski primed for another battle

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AMERICAN SPORTS fans are preoccupied with the baseball exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who are closing in on the home run record. For British tennis, home runs used to signify first-round losses. Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman have changed that perception.

Both are due to mark birthdays tomorrow, Rusedski's 25th, Henman's 24th. Rusedski is hoping to have advanced to the fourth round of the United States Open with enough breath to blow out his candles.

Having survived consecutive five-set matches, saving two match points against the South African Wayne Ferreira and one in defeating the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach, the British No 1 expects to be stretched again today in his third-round match against the experienced Dutchman, Jan Siemerink, a fellow left-hander.

"I have always had close matches with Siemerink, and this will be another tough one," said Rusedski, who has lost in four of their seven previous encounters.

Improving his fitness in two lead-up tournaments to the US Open after being sidelined for two months by the ankle injury which wrecked his Wimbledon challenge, Rusedski must have hoped for a less demanding start to his campaign here, where he was a finalist last year, losing to Australia's Pat Rafter.

"I have never won two matches in five sets in a row before," he said. "If I had played the big points better in the third set against Ulihrach, I probably would have been in the locker-room after four sets. I wasn't aggressive enough in certain situations. But I feel much fresher than after my first match with Ferreira, so I don't think it is going to have any affect. After a day off, I'll be looking forward to my next match."

Siemerink, ranked No 21 in the world, frequently raises his game against higher-rated opponents. Wisely, he does not expect Rusedski to be a softer option because of his previous exertions. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for him," Siemerink said. "I think he will be ready for me.

"Someone who's gone match point down in the first and second round ends up winning the tournament. I'm not saying it's going to happen this time, but I have to be prepared for it."

Much depends on Rusedski's attitude. As Siemerink said: "Maybe he's happy with the way he's been playing in the last two matches. If that's the case, I think I have a good chance. If he tells himself he is not playing the best he can, then it's going to be dangerous." Siemerink, who likes to serve and volley on every point - "I even try to do it in the return games, but that's hard" - is philosophical about Rusedski's power. "There are going to be a lot of service games where I don't have a chance at all," he said. "I'm not going to be bothered by that. I'll just try to accept that and try to be ready the moment his serve is off. It's going to happen maybe once or twice during the match."

Apart from losing their first match on a concrete court in Osaka in 1993, Siemerink has dominated on surfaces similar to those here. He did, however, beat Rusedski on grass in the semi-finals at Nottingham in 1996.

Asked if he thought that the hard court would favour him today, Siemerink said: "If you look at the statistics, you might say yes. But he played the final last year. I haven't done that yet. I don't look at the statistics, because every day is another match. If Greg is not playing well, he will lose. If I'm not playing well, I'll lose."

Siemerink acknowledges that Rusedski's groundstrokes have improved over the past 18 months. "Of course, of course," the Dutchman said. "You can't be lucky to be in the top 10. It isn't possible. His returns are much better than they used to be."

Jana Novotna, who won her first grand slam singles title at Wimbledon in July, advanced to the fourth round of the women's singles with a 6- 3, 6-2 win against Sandrine Testud, of France, who is ranked No 17. Novotna's best performance at the US Open was an appearance in the semi-finals in 1994. The third seed from the Czech Republic will next play the Romanian Irina Spirlea or the American teenager Serena Williams.

Monica Seles, the No 6 seed, also reached the fourth round by defeating Annie Miller, a fellow American, ranked No 45, 6-3, 6-3. "I've been able to turn my game a couple of notches to win," Seles said.

Anna Kournikova, seeded No 15, advanced to the third round on Thursday night, experiencing more difficulty with the floodlights than her Czech opponent, Radka Bobkova.

"I had to get used to playing at night, and I have. Other than that I felt great," Kournikova said after winning, 6-3, 6-4.

The thumb injury that prevented the 17-year-old Russian from playing at Wimbledon has healed, and questions put to the millionaire switched to the failing health of the rouble.

Asked if she had been in contact with her grandparents in Moscow this week, Kournikova replied: "Of course, I talk to them very often." And what was their view of the situation? "Everything in the newspapers and everything that you see on the TV is a little bit over-exaggerated. Maybe there are some problems, but they have always been there. It is just that right now it is a little bit more. People are still living the same lives as they lives before."


Greg Rusedski (GB) v Jan Siemerink (Neth)

(Siemerink leads 4-3)

Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score

1993 Osaka hard last 32 Rusedski 6-4 6-1

1994 Key Biscayne hard first Siemerink 6-4 6-7 6-3

1996 Hong Kong hard last 32 Siemerink 2-6 6-4 6-4

1996 Nottingham grass semi-final Siemerink 7-6 6-3

1997 Zagreb carpet last 16 Rusedski 4-6 6-3 6-2

1997 Paris carpet last 32 Rusedski 6-4 6-3

1997 Stockholm hard semi-final Siemerink 4-6 7-6 6-4