Tennis: Rusedski stutters on return of Rafter jinx

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The Independent Online
Greg Rusedski made a disappointing start to the ATP Tour World Championship yesterday, losing in three sets to Australia's Patrick Rafter. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, also lost in three sets, to Spain's Carlos Moya. But the Briton's challenge is not over yet, as John Roberts explains from Hannover.

It is time for a spot of philosophising. As Pete Sampras knows only too well, it is possible to lose a match in the round-robin phase of the ATP Tour Championship and still leave with the trophy and the cheque.

The American world No 1 did precisely that a year ago here, losing to Boris Becker in the group competition and then defeating the German in five sets in the final.

Greg Rusedski, Britain's first representative in the Tour finale, might take some convincing after his experience yesterday in losing yet again to Australia's Patrick Rafter. If it is of any consolation to Rusedski, Sampras made far more errors in losing to Carlos Moya from Majorca, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2.

The problem is that Rusedski and Sampras play each other this afternoon in a match in which defeat for one of them would leave their prospects of qualifying for the semi-finals in the balance.

Rusedski, beaten in four sets by Rafter in the United States Open final in September, appeared to have put that behind him yesterday as he dominated the opening set. Serving with such confidence that he conceded only five points in five service games, the only concern for Rusedski and his supporters was that he was not converting opportunities on the Australian's serve.

Eventually, on his sixth break point, Rusedski made the decisive early break, playing a forehand half-volley which gave Rafter little option but to deposit a forehand in response into the net. Rusedski then served out the set, 6-4 after 39 minutes.

That accomplished, Rusedski appeared secure enough until the fourth game of the second set, in which he experienced the rare occurrence of having his service broken to love. Rusedski, and most observers, would argue that the Briton did win a point with an ace for 15-30, but the shot was called out and from that point Rusedski's game slowly began to disintegrate while Rafter's gained momentum.

Having created so many chances in the opening set, Rusedski was unable to manufacture one in the next two. Rafter, by contrast, was treating the spectators to the flair that made him such a popular winner at New York's Flushing Meadow. "He got hot when he needed to," Rusedski said. "He deserved to win."

The one break in the second set was sufficient for him to level, 6-3, after 68 minutes and he broke Rusedski for 3-2 to gain the initiative in the deciding set.

Where Rusedski and Rafter were concerned, the fact that the concrete court played rather slowly was evened out by the similarity of their styles as attacking players. Sampras, on the other hand, considered himself to be at a distinct disadvantage against Moya, one of the Spanish baseliners. Sampras's discomfiture was demonstrated in the number of times he had to change his rackets because of broken strings or the fear that strings were close to breaking.

"Carlos served well and hit some big groundies," Sampras acknowledged, "but the court is slow and it gives him more time.

"His topspin shots on this court are bouncing very high, so its not easy to come in against him. The balls they are using here makes it very difficult to end the point. They get extremely chewed up and very heavy. The only good thing is that my arm is great. I felt no pain whatsoever. There's something positive."

It is perhaps as well that Sampras had some source of consolation after making 50 unforced errors and finding himself outsmarted on the serve by the player he defeated in the final of the Australian Open in January.

TODAY'S ORDER OF PLAY: Rusedski v Sampras; J Bjorkman (Swe) v Y Kafelnikov (Rus); Moya v Rafter.

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