Tennis: Rusedski survives second close call

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GREG RUSEDSKI is two rounds, 10 sets, 107 games, 49 aces, and three saved match points on his way to a second consecutive appearance in the United States Open men's singles final. An immeasurable amount of fortitude has bolstered his campaign.

The British No 1 recovered from 2-1 down and saved his third match point of the tournament yesterday before defeating Bohdan Ulihrach, of the Czech Republic 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Does the man not realise that he gets paid just as much for winning in straight sets? "I was thinking about joining the women's tour. You only have to play three sets maximum," Rusedski joked. "But a win is a win, you can't complain."

Ulihrach's match point came with Rusedski serving at 4-5 in the final set. A double-fault - the second serve landing in the wrong court - brought the score to 30-30, and the Czech then hit a superb backhand pass down the line.

Rusedski's first serve at 30-40 landed long. His second delivery kicked up, and Ulihrach played a cramped backhand return over the baseline, pulling his cap over his face in frustration.

"I just give him a little bit of a change-up," Rusedski said. "I went into the body. I think he was expecting a fast second serve, and it just kicked up and went high. Fortunately for me he didn't connect too well on it."

Ulihrach, as with South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, who had two match points against Rusedksi in the opening round, realised that it was not his day. Rusedski had earlier given the Czech every incentive, double-faulting to lose the decisive third game of the opening set and then compiling a catalogue of missed opportunities.

Although Ulihrach misplaced a backhand - often his most dangerous weapon - to lose the second set, Rusedski's flagrancy with break points ruined his chances of taking a 2-1 lead.

Having denied his opponent two chances in the eighth game of the third set, Rusedski was unable to convert any of four break points at 4-4 after Ulihrach had double-faulted to 0-40. The disappointed Briton won only one point in being broken for the set, hitting a tight backhand volley wide.

"I got the frustration out of myself in the first game of the fourth set," Rusedski said. "I just went a little bit crazy for my shots. Then I cooled myself down and stayed positive."

In the second game, Rusedski secured the second of the 21 break points he created in the match. Ulihrach, attempting to relieve the pressure, lifted a backhand lob over the baseline. Rusedski broke again, for 5-2, building his confidence for the fifth-set duel.

Neither player conceded points on serve in the early games, taking care not to encourage full-scale attack. Rusedski was the first under threat, saving two break points at 3-4 with service winners and finishing the game with successive aces (his match total was 30). Then came Ulihrach's match point in the ninth game and Rusedski's surge to the third round. The Czech missed another backhand to be broken for 5-6, and Rusedski served out after two hours and 50 minutes.

Rusedski's next opponent is the Dutchman Jan Siemerink, a fellow left- hander, who leads their head to head 4-3.

Andre Agassi, seeded No 8, surrendered a two-set lead before recovering to defeat the Frenchman Guillaume Raoux, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1. The top seed Pete Sampras, also had a difficult time, his form ominously shaky against Paul Goldstein, an Amercian wild card ranked No 256. Sampras raised his game enough to win, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Martina Hingis, whose prospects of a Grand Slam last year was ended by Eva Majoli at the French Open, yesterday defeated the Croat, 7-6, 6-0.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, seeded No 4, also advanced to round three with 6-3, 6-2 win over Fabiola Zuluaga, a Colombian teenager ranked No 129.

Last year's finalist, Venus Williams, defeated Luxembourg's Anne Kremer, 6-1, 6-3 but her latest collection of sleeveless tennis dresses have not impressed the WTA tour, who insist that leading players wear the tour's logo patch on a sleeve.

Fines range from $100 (pounds 61) for a first offence, imposed on Williams after her opening match against Elena Wagner, up to $25,000 (pounds 15,300) for subsequent matches. Williams avoided being fined $500 for a second offence yesterday by wearing the patch on a shoulder strap.

Serena Williams, Venus's younger sister, is next in the frame. Short of calling in Don King, it would be difficult to amplify the hype surrounding the 16-year-old Serena's third round match against Irina Spirlea, the Romanian No 8 seed.

In last year's semi-final between Spirlea and Venus Williams, it may be remembered, neither player would concede ground as they walked to their chairs during a changeover. The result was a confrontation, shoulder- to-shoulder.

Richard Williams said Spirlea was lucky she had not bumped into Serena, who might have knocked her down. The younger Williams sister did not shy away from such a suggestion when interviewed after her second round win against Bulgaria's Pavlina Stoyanova, 6-2, 6-1.

"Sometimes I can get out of control," Serena said. "If that [bump] had happened, I probably wouldn't be here right now. I probably wouldn't be able to play on the WTA Tour."