Tennis: Sargsian leaves Rusedski puzzled

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SARGIS SARGSIAN, who has been known to solve Rubik's Cube in three minutes, turned Greg Rusedski inside out in 64 minutes in the quarter- finals of the Stella Artois Championships yesterday. The result, 6-2, 6-4, may conjure lines such as "Sarge subjects Rusedski to corporal punishment on the way to Wimbledon", but the 26-year-old Armenian's game was much more subtle than that.

Rusedski was undone by Sargsian's speed and guile, as were Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was toppled from his precarious perch as the world No 1 in the second round, and Australia's Scott Draper, the defending champion, in the third round. None of the three, however, would have been fooled by Sargsian's ranking: No 74 in the world. Sargsian, who, unusually, names slow clay and fast grass as his favourite surfaces, honed his game for the Queen's Club lawns by winning the Powder Byrne Trophy at Surbiton last week after losing early at the French Open.

Rusedski, so impressive against the South African Wayne Ferreira on Thursday, put on a brave face after yesterday's performance before preparing to complete his preparations at next week's Nottingham Open. "It's better this happened here and not Wimbledon," he said.

While crediting Sargsian for a splendid display, Rusedski said his own game was never in gear. "I never relaxed into the match," he said. "I was too uptight." Rusedski added that he thought his opponent was also nervous at the start of the match. If so, Sargsian managed to conceal his discomfort. He must be as fluent in body language as he is in Armenian and English (he has lived in Florida for the past six years).

"He was moving, diving, ducking," Rusedski said. "He's one of the best movers on the grass I've seen in a long time. I don't think it's a set- back for me at all. I'm disappointed I couldn't turn the match around today, but I've had three matches here and I'm just going to centre on the things I have to improve so that I can play like I did against Ferreira."

Rusedski said it did not cross his mind that his grass-court season had foundered on this day at Queen's 12 months ago when he damaged an ankle while playing a third-round match against Italy's Laurence Tieleman on Court No 1. "That's forgotten," he said. "And this was just one of those days you have from time to time. It's one match - back to work!"

Setting aside partisan concern that Rusedski may now be rocky going into Wimbledon, it was a treat to see Sargsian bring such marvellous touch to a scene usually dominated by power. "I was a little surprised I was getting so many serves on my racket," he said. "I was expecting more aces. I was also surprised how much support I got. A lot of people were pulling for me as well as for Greg."

Sargsian may have expected Rusedski to hit more aces, but he could scarcely have hoped that the British No 2 would double fault to lose the third game of the opening set. That said, Sargsian had created the break point with a breathtakingly measured backhand to the corner of the court.

There was more magic from Sargsian as he increased his lead to 4-1, making the opportunity to break with an acutely- angled backhand half-volley, before his momentum carried him round the back of the umpire's chair where he was able to pause for breath and acknowledge the crowd's acclaim.

Having won the first set after only 21 minutes, Sargsian continued to make his opponent seem flat-footed. Rusedski was lucky to survive two break points in the fifth game, saving the first with a forehand drive, but enjoying the luck of a net cord on the second.

Sargsian put that to the back of his mind when two more opportunities came his way in the seventh game. Over-eager with the first, belting a forehand return over the baseline, he took more care returning a backhand on the second and Rusedski dumped a backhand response into the net.

Signs that Rusedski might take the contest into a third set disappeared after he was unable to convert any of three break points in the eighth game, netting a backhand return on the first, seeing his opponent save the second with a forehand volley, and failing to keep a backhand in play on the third.

A change-over gave Sargsian time to ponder before serving for the match at 5-4, but his nerve held. He delivered an ace down the centre line (something Rusedski had tried to do all match) to go to match point, and completed the job with a high, angled backhand volley.

It may be of little consolation to Rusedski to know this, but Sargsian confessed that he would need more than just three minutes to do Rubik's Cube at a moment's notice. "I haven't done it for a long time," he said, "so I would have to go in a room for an hour to refresh my memory."

Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian No 14 seed, advanced to the semi-finals with a 7-5, 6-4, win against France's Cedric Pioline, the runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 1997. Hewitt's words in celebration were probably more temperate than those he used while addressing a line judge, for which he received a code violation.

Hewitt next plays Sampras, who defeated Goran Ivanisevic, 7-5, 6-4, and goes back to No 1 to equal Ivan Lendl's record total of 270 weeks at the top.

Results, Digest, page 31