Tennis: Rusedski's stunt fails to stall Krajicek

GREG RUSEDSKI did not quite raise the tented roof. Nor did the wind, hard though it tried. But the look on Richard Krajicek's face suggested that the Dutchman would at least have filled it full of holes with his cannonball serve if justice had not been done yesterday in the final of the pounds 510,000 Guardian Direct Cup.

Krajicek won, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5, but only after a spot of gamesmanship by Rusedski that almost cost the 1996 Wimbledon champion the title and a first prize of pounds 80,000.

Rusedski was a break down at 3-4 in the final set and Krajicek had just thundered the 27th of his 30 aces for 15-0 when the British No 2 decided to hand his racket to a ball-girl, inviting her to play for him while he took a seat in a linesman's chair. It was the sort of light-hearted gesture we have seen from players down the years, including Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Andre Agassi, although seldom at such a crucial moment.

Krajicek played along, tapping his way through a gentle rally with the ball girl, Victoria Lister. But the distraction was costly. Krajicek, his rhythm broken, was able to win only one of the next 11 points, teetering within two points of defeat when serving again at 4-5, 0-30.

"Next time Greg is serving me off the court I know what to do," Krajicek told the 4,000 spectators after salvaging the situation, "I'll get the ball girl to go out and play."

Eager though British tennis is for success, it would have been an embarrassment if Rusedski had gone on to win. One reporter even asked him if, as an Arsenal supporter, he would have offered to replay the match. "He didn't lose, so there's nothing to talk about," Rusedski replied. "I don't think there was a player injured on the pitch, so it's not the same thing."

Rusedski's explanation was delivered with a customary smile. "I don't think I touched Richard's serve in the whole of the third set," he said. "I was so frustrated. The ball girl returned better than me." He added, "If somebody did that to me, I'd do the same thing Richard did. It has happened to me. You wouldn't be raising this if he had served three more aces for 5-3."

Instead, Krajicek suddenly began to miss first serves and misdirect volleys and was broken for the only time in the match, for 4-4. Rusedski then held to love, and won the next two points on Krajicek's serve - the first of them after the Dutchman had drilled the ball at him. Krajicek regained his concentration, pieced his game back together, and levelled for 5- 5 with two more aces.

Rusedski double-faulted to lose the 11th game, and Krajicek dropped only one more point in completing his victory after two hours and six minutes. He dedicated the title to his countryman Menno Oosting, who was killed in a car crash last week. Krajicek went to Eindhoven for the funeral on Saturday, returning in time to win his semi-final against Sweden's Thomas Johansson.

Krajicek was annoyed at Rusedski's delaying tactics, but blamed himself. "It was up to me," he said. "Greg felt like he wanted the ball girl to play, and I allowed it to happen. If the score had been 40-0 it would have been more acceptable than at 15-0. I should have aced her and said to Greg, `She can't return my serve either'."

With regard to the consistency of his serve - regularly delivered at 130mph - Krajicek said: "I think it must have been the ham and eggs I had for English breakfast. I have hit 30 aces before, but I've not often had a first serve percentage as high as 67 per cent. It was very difficult for Greg to return. It's nice to give it back to him for the times he's done it to me."

Although delighted with winning his first title of the season, Krajicek had a couple of pointers regarding improving the tournament. He would prefer a venue that did not have a tented roof with metal supports that creak and groan alarmingly in the wind, and he advises a slower surface than the carpet on wood tailored for an attacking game like his, Rusedski's and Tim Henman's. "They might try a putting a hard court on wood, which is a fairer surface for different styles of play. And I think London is a great city, with wonderful restaurants, but it's a pity they can't find another venue in a permanent arena."

Rusedski, who received pounds 42,500 as runner-up in the singles, ended the day on a high note, winning the doubles title with his Davis Cup team- mate Henman. They defeated Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, and South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, 6-3, 7-6. The Britons shared pounds 35,625.

Results, Digest, page 9