Britons seek revival for Davis Cup tie

US Open: Henman and Rusedski search among ruins of Grand Slam defeats for inspiration to take on Ecuador in vital match on clay
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The Independent Online

As we move towards the sharp end at the United States Open, with mouth-watering matches in prospect, starting with Pete Sampras versus Pat Rafter and Andre Agassi versus Roger Federer, the British challenge is over. Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski have packed their rackets and left, making few excuses.

Frankly, neither of them played well enough to deserve to advance to a fourth-round meeting which would have guaranteed one of them a place in the quarter-finals. For Henman v Rusedski read Xavier Malisse v Mariano Zabaleta.

Saturday brought a tricky wind to tease the competitors, particularly the likes of Henman and Rusedski, whose games are built around the serve. In spite of the conditions, the ninth-seeded Henman led Malisse 3-0 in the fifth set. "I needed to press on again, but in all honesty I don't think I was playing quite well enough," Henman said after the 21-year-old Belgian had defeated him, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

In the past two years, the British No 1 has lost seven of his last eight Grand Slam tournaments in five sets, most agonisingly to Goran Ivanisevic in the Wimbledon semi-finals two months ago. The latest set-back offered nothing in terms of consolation for Henman and his coach, the American Larry Stefanki, who have worked together since Wimbledon. Henman's career record in five-set matches is 11-12, winning eight and losing 10 in Grand Slams.

Malisse's coach, David Felgate, who was Henman's mentor for nearly nine years until last April, said he had experienced "mixed emotions". He was delighted with Malisse's performance, but felt for Henman, particularly towards the end of the match. "I have been there with Tim many times," he said.

Rusedski's defeat by Zabaleta, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 7-6, was also an anticlimax, although the 23-year-old Argentinian, the world junior champion in 1995, has shown signs here that his career is back on track after a series of injuries. "My first serve percentage let me down," Rusedski said. "He really punished my second serve. He hit some great returns into my feet. I think that was probably the key to the match."

Having been docked a penalty point during his second round match against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman after a ball hit in frustration struck a linesman, Rusedski received a code violation for an obscenity during the fourth-set tie-break on Saturday. Rusedski said that the word he used was "fudge". Called to the referee's office after the match, Rusedski restated his innocence. "If I said the 'F word' give me the fine, I'm more than happy to take it," he said. "But I didn't say the 'F word'. I at least try to keep my language proper."

Always one to look for positives, Rusedski emphasised that he and Henman would now have to concentrate on the Cup – the Davis Cup that is, and the World Group promotion tie on a slow clay court in Ecuador on 21-23 September.

Rusedski, who withdrew from the doubles rubber because of a foot injury when Ecuador defeated Britain at Wimbledon last year, said: "We need to get back to the World Group. It was embarrassing losing to Ecuador on grass. We need to get people excited about tennis again. I think this might be the most important Davis Cup tie Britain's had in years."

He intends to stay in America and join Henman and the squad for training in Miami next Sunday. He is prepared to play doubles as well as two singles in the tie. "I think I'm healthy and fit. The doubles is going to be the key. I'm going to be playing for three days, and I think Tim will be playing for three days. That's what we have to do."

Lleyton Hewitt needed no introduction here yesterday, and none was made as the controversial Australian prepared to play his third-round match against Spain's Albert Portas on the Louis Armstrong stadium. The British umpire, Mike Morrissey, dispensed with the usual presentation of the players before the match started. It was Hewitt's first appearance on court since Friday night, when he was alleged to have made a racist remark concerning Marion Johnson, an African-American linesman, during his match against James Blake, of Yonkers, an African-American.

The Grand Slam supervisors investigated the incident and gave Hewitt the benefit of the doubt, accepting that what he said to the umpire, Andreas Egli – "I have only been foot-faulted at one end. Look at him. Look at him. You tell me what the similarity is" – was not conclusive evidence that the remarks had racial overtones.

There was no adverse crowd reaction as Hewitt, the fourth seed, defeated Portas, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4. He will play Tommy Haas, of Germany, in the fourth round.