Tennis: The rise and rise of Rusedski

Stephen Brenkley sees Henman's hold on his rival broken with ruthless ease
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The Independent Online
Any lingering debate about the identity of Britain's best tennis player was convincingly terminated in Vienna yesterday. Greg Rusedski swept aside his compatriot Tim Henman with a resolutely confident, beautifully controlled exhibition in the semi-final of the CA Trophy.

The performance was that of a man whose form seems perpetually to be improving. He will play Goran Ivanisevic in today's final, his sixth so far in a wonderful year which seems sure to culminate with an appearance in the ATP Tour finals in Hanover. It was not that Rusedski could no wrong, it was that he appeared aware it would all come right. This did not make for coruscating tennis and the crowd which half-filled the indoor arena never remotely had to consider getting on its collective feet.

It was billed as the Battle of Britain but in truth it had trouble entering the realms of a minor skirmish. For all that, it was probably necessary for most observers of the proceedings to be in a constant state of pinching themselves. Only a year ago the odds on a pair of Britons landing on Mars would have been slightly shorter than on two of them, both in the world's top 25, contesting the semi-final of an ATP tour event.

A single service break in each set was sufficient to secure Rusedski's 6-4 6-4 victory but there was always the suspicion that the biggest server and widest smiler in the game had something in reserve. There is simply much more to his game these days than having another ace up his sleeve, though the latter possession must constantly warm his heart.

"I did what I had to do," he said, encapsulating the routine nature of it all. "When I need to come up with the big points I did so. He had two break points and I had two. I took mine.''

Henman began with the slight psychological advantage of having won all three previous matches between the pair. He had beaten Rusedski in the final of the British championship in 1995 and 1996, both times coming from a set down, and in the Czech Indoor last year in Ostrava, their only prior meeting in an ATP tour event, when he won 7-6 7-5. It must also have sweetened his mind that in 12 matches with left-handed opposition he had lost only one.

But at no time in Austria yesterday did he look likely to extend those successes. His game plan, if it can be so called, was as obvious as it was repetitive. He had decided to work on Rusedski's weaker backhand. If this had seemed a sound strategy in conception its execution was not quite so impeccable, for it allowed Rusedski to hone the shot whether at the net or on the baseline.

The break which enabled Rusedski to take the first set came in the fifth game. At 15-30, Henman double-faulted. Rusedski immediately seized his chance with a low, dipping return of serve which his rival put in the tram lines.

In the second game of the second set there was brief glimmer of an opening for Henman. With the assistance of a double fault and steely volley he led 40-15. All week nobody had broken Rusedski's serve. He was about to demonstrate why. He saved the first break point with an ace, the second with a no nonsense volley and quickly produced another ace to win the game.

The break came in the seventh game. A crisp return of serve down the line and a similarly placed volley were the telling shots. It will not have been lost on Henman that both were backhands.

"I would say he's probably got the best serve in the world at the moment," said the loser. Which is true but ignores the other weapons in the armoury.

Ivanisevic must be aware of as much today after a struggling three-set win over Richard Krajicek. It is a measure of the way that tennis power has changed that Rusedski, No 4 in the world and rising, will start as clear favourite.