Tennis: Rusedski's stylish slaying of Sampras

Briton aims for top ranking next year after overcoming American world No 1 and improving Hanover prospects
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DEFEATING PETE SAMPRAS is one thing. Outplaying (Sampras's description) the man voted by his peers as the best player of the past quarter century is a tour de force. As cries of allez! reverberated in the Palais Omnisports here, Greg Rusedski celebrated "a magical day", for himself and for British tennis

In winning the final of the Paris Open, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, after an hour and 44 minutes, Rusedski played the most impressive tennis of his career. He blended the might of his serves and volleys with confident returns and blistering groundstokes, particularly on the backhand, and showed admirable resilience when the going became bumpy in the second set.

"He's been hot all week and has pretty much kicked everybody's butt," Sampras said. "My hat is off to him."

Officials at the Lawn Tennis Association will be running out of hats to doff to Rusedski. His victory means that both he and Tim Henman have an opportunity to qualify for the eight-man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover in a fortnight's time.

With just one more week of tournaments to play (the two Britons go to Stockholm today), Henman is seventh in the race, Rusedski eighth. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is playing in this week's event in Moscow, is the third man competing for one of the two remaining places in Hanover. Rusedski is also expected to rise to No 11 in the world rankings today, one place behind Henman, the British No 1.

To put Rusedski's achievement in perspective, when Sampras was a callow 17-year-old in his first season on the professional tour, he was defeated by Jeremy Bates in the Nynex Open, at Rye Brook, California. Yesterday, 11 Grand Slam titles (five at Wimbledon) and five years at No 1 later, the brilliant American lost to a Briton for only the second time in his career.

Rusedski needed more than high quality tennis to prevail during a torrid weekend. On Saturday, towards the end of his semi-final win against Kafelnikov, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, Rusedski had to block out the whistles and boos of the crowd as he attempted to serve. The spectators were reacting angrily to the perceived injustice of a line call against the Russian.

Yesterday, with most of the 12,500 spectators willing Sampras to make a successful defence, Rusedski maintained the consistency of his play and took his opportunities.

Having saved four break points in the second game of the second set, Rusedski was unable to deny Sampras in the sixth game, netting a volley when the American returned a second serve. Sampras uncharacteristically double-faulted twice when serving for the set at 5-4, crucially on break point.

"I'm kicking myself for playing that loose game," said Sampras, who was unable to stem Rusedski's run of eight successive games, plus the tie- break, which the Briton won, 7-4. Sampras did not win another game until he was 0-3 down in the third set.

While agreeing that Rusedski's game was now "pretty complete when he's on," the American added a rider. "You have to take into consideration he was playing me, and it's always easy to play me as far as tension and nerves go, because he's got nothing to lose."

Rusedski said he believed he could become world No 1 next year, "if I play like I did today." After seeing Sampras's interview on television, Rusedski added: "As Pete was saying, it's better to do it rather than say it, but the excitement of the moment - and having beaten Sampras - is a great feeling. You feel like you're No 1 for a day."

An ankle injury wrecked Rusedski's chances of doing himself justice at Wimbledon, and he gives his new coach, the Dutchman Sven Groenveld, credit for helping him to pick up his season. "Sven has been very patient and has really got me to work extremely well on the areas I need to work on," Rusedski said. "My returns are much more solid, my ground game is much better. And when I make a mistake [in terms of behaviour], we try not to repeat it two or three times."

Rusedski is the first British player to win one of the ATP Tour Super 9 events, which are ranked second only to the four Grand Slams.


Pete Sampras leads 13-2

Sampras v Jeremy Bates

(Sampras wins 2-1)

1988 Rye Brook (hard surface) round 16,

victory to Bates, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3.

1989 Adelaide (hard) round 32,

Sampras, 6-2, 6-3

1995 Queen's Club (grass) round 16,

Sampras,6-3, 7-5

Sampras v Andrew Foster

(Sampras leads 1-0)

1993 Wimbledon (grass) round 16,

Sampras, 6-1, 6-2, 7-6

Sampras v Tim Henman

(Sampras leads 4-0)

1994 Japan Open (hard) round 16,

Sampras, 6-1, 6-2

2995 Wimbledon (grass) round 64,

Sampras,6-2, 6-3, 7-6

1998 Wimbledon (grass) semi-final,

Sampras,6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3

1998 Vienna (carpet) quarter-final,

Sampras, 6-0, 6-3

Sampras v Greg Rusedski

(Sampras leads 6-1)

1995 Wimbledon (grass) round 16,

Sampras, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5,

1996 San Jose (hard) quarter-final,

Sampras 6-7, 6-3, 6-4

1996 Memphis (hard) round 16,

Sampras, 7-6, 7-6

1997 San Jose (hard) final

Sampras, 3-6, 5-0, 30-0 (ret)

1997 Grand Slam Cup (carpet) semi-final, Sampras, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2

1997 ATP Tour Championship (hard) round 2, Sampras, 6-4, 7-5

1998 Paris Open (carpet) final,

Rusedski 6-4 7-6 6-3