Tennis: Rusedski spies his opportunity

US Open: British No 2 coasts through as two-times champion Rafter is knocked out by shoulder injury
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The Independent Online
THIS United States Open, a disaster for some, beckons invitingly for Greg Rusedski to repeat his 1997 run to the final, provided the British No 2 cranks his game to a higher level than yesterday, when he defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero, another in a lengthening list of promising Spaniards, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.

Rusedski required two hours and 19 minutes to overhaul the lean, 19-year- old from Alicante, who was playing his first match in a Grand Slam championship and was also competing on a concrete court for the first time on the professional tour.

In the second round Rusedski, the No 9 seed, will have to be wary of David Prinosil, the experienced German Davis Cup player, who is one of the journeymen capable of wrecking the ambitions of those seeking to sweep through the thinning top half of the draw.

Rusedski, who lost to the Russian Marat Safin in the Boston final last Sunday, his first tournament after an absence of six-weeks to heal the damaged big toe of his right foot, was able to re-acquaint himself with the Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday, hoping that his true form will join him. "I have a good chance to win the tournament," he said afterwards. "The key is getting to the second week, and if I get there I can progress. I feel I'm moving better, feeling fresher and keeping my head better - and having lost the first set I was pleased with the way I came back. My volleys were sharp, and I felt pretty good. I feel fitter than I was last year.

"The foot was fine, and I was pleased with the way I played today. I need a massage and ice treatment after the match, but it is not going to give me any problems. Fitness won't play a part this fortnight."

Rusedski also admitted that the departures of Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter through injury from his side of the draw have given him a perfect opportunity to emulate his feat of two years ago when he reached the final here before losing to the Australian. "It is definitely more open," he said.

The casualty rate in the first round of the men's singles has been so severe that three of the four players who contested the Wimbledon semi- finals in July are either consulting medical specialists or, in the case of Tim Henman, having his broken game scanned.

While glum tournament officials were digesting the loss of Pete Sampras, Rafter, the No 4 seed and champion for the past two years, walked to the net and retired after cajoling his damaged right shoulder through two hours and 39 minutes of intermittent agony against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline on Tuesday night.

When he did walk off, he was accompanied by boos from people with short memories. "That was not fair," Pioline said. "He gave up because he had a serious problem. I mean, he's defending champion here. He loves the tournament."

Rafter said: "Once one person starts booing, I guess the rest of them do. It's very sad. What can I do? I played here the last two years. I had a very good reception. To be booed off, that hurts, no doubt about it."

Rafter spent yesterday with doctors, hoping that their prognosis would not bring his season to a close, but knowing that he had little chance of being fit for Australia's Davis Cup semi-final against Russia in Brisbane in three weeks' time. The Australians are already fretting about the knee and ankle injuries threatening the participation of the big-serving Mark Philippoussis, who withdrew from the tournament on Saturday.

By shaking hands with Pioline, who was leading 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1- 0, Rafter gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending US men's singles champion ever to lose in the opening round. The Australian was unable to sustain his effort after winning the first two sets, and even then it was painful for him to serve. A tumble during the opening set worried his supporters, but Rafter said the fall did not affect the shoulder. "I sat there after the 7-5 game [in the fourth set], and I knew I should have just walked off at that stage, but I didn't. Even if I had won that game, I couldn't see myself pulling up for the next match. But I still didn't want to walk off the court."

Henman said he could only blame himself for the poor performance against Guillermo Canas, an unspectacular Argentinian, who defeated the British No 1 in straight sets. Once again it has raised speculation concerning the future of his coach, David Felgate, but the friendship, trust and understanding between Henman and Felgate has been integral to the player's success, and ought to be encouraged. But it certainly might help if, from time to time, a second opinion were sought on a consultancy basis.

As for the world No 1, it was not Sampras's strained hip that caused him to abandon his quest for a record 13th Grand Slam title, but a herniated disc in the lower back. His prospects of returning in time to defend the year-end No 1 ranking he has held for a record six years are slim. He has been advised to rest for a month.

Martina Hingis, the 1997 women's singles champion, advanced to the third round, overwhelming Sarah Pitkowski, of France, 6-1, 6-1.