Tennis: Rusedski returns verbal volley

GREG RUSEDSKI celebrated his 26th birthday having dinner in Manhattan last night with his fiance, Lucy Connor, and his coach, Sven Goeneveld, knowing that the Americans are expecting Todd Martin to have him for breakfast in the fourth round of the United States Open.

Nothing personal, but Rusedski is British, via Canada, and Martin, from Illinois, is neatly placed to take the Stars and Stripes into Sunday's men's singles final, in Pete Sampras's absence from the top half of the draw.

Chris Woodruff, from Tennessee, who made Rusedski toil for a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win in unusually windy, clammy conditions in the third round on Monday night, reckons that the courts are tailor-made for Rusedski, but that his friend Martin will exploit Rusedski's backhand and extend his domination of the British No 2 to six wins to one.

Martin's latest success against Rusedski, in straight sets, gave the United States a 2-0 lead after the first day's singles rubbers in an unforgettable Davis Cup tie at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena at Easter. Rusedski suffered further agony in losing the deciding rubber against Jim Courier in five sets.

"Rusedski can't pass on his backhand to save his life," Woodruff said. "He's got a great serve - what a pretty motion, one of the best motions, if not the best, out here. I think it would be wrong of me to sit here and tell you he's an under-achiever with that serve, but I don't know if he'll ever get to the top, because that backhand is a pretty big hole."

Woodruff, ranked No 71 in the world, would advise Rusedski's opponents to serve to the forehand. "Contrary to popular belief, you need to serve him more to the forehand, because he holds the return serve with the backhand grip, and that really can't hurt you from the back of the court. He's very comfortable chipping the backhand. I never saw him once step up and come over it."

He added: "Todd doesn't need to have a chat with me. Greg is a great match-up for Todd. Todd's a little bit more comfortable at the net than I am. He'll make Greg pass him."

Rusedski dismissed Woodruff's master-class. "All I talk about is the end result," he said. "If my backhand was so bad, why didn't he beat me? I don't see him in the top 10 in the world; I don't see him in the Grand Slam finals; I don't remember him beating Sampras in straight sets. I think he should keep his comments to himself."

If Rusedski defeats Martin, as he may well do, he will overtake Tim Henman as the British No 1, a timely bonus while endeavouring to improve upon his inspiring performance at the 1997 US Open, when he lost to Australia's Pat Rafter in the final.

Jiri Novak and Slava Dosedel may be Czech, but they are not in the image of Ivan Lendl, so whichever one of the unseeded pair arrives in the quarter- finals will not be fancied to keep either Martin, the No 7 seed, or Rusedski, seeded No 9, from the last four. "Whoever wins between myself and Todd has a really good chance to go to the semis or the final," Rusedski said, "because Dosedel and Novak are two very good players, but, on paper, you should beat those players."

The other semi-finalist in Rusedski's half will be either the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten (No 5), the Germany's Tommy Haas (No 14), or one of the unseeded challengers, the Frenchman Cedric Pioline or Sweden's Magnus Norman.

Rusedski relishes he challenge. "This is a different setting [from the Davis Cup], because Todd's the one who's expected to win," he said. "All the focus is on him, because they're expecting him to go through on the top half. So I'm going to enjoy this match."

He added that "Todd lets his tennis do the talking". Occasionally, Martin's game speaks volumes, and Flushing Meadows is not the place to let a nice- guy image get in the way of success.

The keenly-anticipated women's singles contest between Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati was not exactly "Rockette II", Seles winning 6-4, 6-3 after 74 minutes to advance to the quarter-finals. Although Capriati broke serve when Seles lead 5-2 in the first set, she was unable to generate the fire of their 1991 semi-final.

Capriati, 23, broke down when reading a statement apologising for the hurt her past wayward behaviour had caused "to my loved ones, to the fans and, finally, to myself", and requested that future interviews would "focus on the now".

RUSEDSKI v MARTIN

(Martin leads 5-1)

1993: Tokyo Indoor (carpet) semi-final: Martin won 7-6, 6-3.

1994: Queen's Club (grass) quarter-final: Martin won 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

1995: Memphis (concrete) quarter-final: Martin won 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.

1996: Sydney (concrete) semi-final: Martin won 7-5, 7-6.

1997: Vienna (carpet) quarter-final: Rusedski won 6-1, 6-7, 6-3.

1999: Davis Cup (concrete): Martin won 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

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