Felgate's pupil proves too good for Rusedski

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The Independent Online

The Wimbledon colours, purple and green, are prominent at the Masters Series tournament at Palais Omnisports de Paris-Berçy. The courts are purple, and grass adorns the stadium's steep outer walls. The grass was mowed yesterday morning, not by rock climbers but by a motorised contraption on pulleys. This fascinating procedure may have given nightmares to Eddie Seaward and his groundstaff in SW19, while providing Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski with an amusing reminder of their ups and downs on their favourite surface.

Rusedski, the British No 2, was certainly not inspired by the sight, losing in the first round to Xavier Malisse, from Belgium, 7-6, 6-4. David Felgate therefore had the satisfaction of advising a player who has beaten both Henman, his former protégé, and Rusedski, Henman's rival, within the past two months. Felgate intends to give up coaching after this tournament to take up a post with Mark McCormack's International Management Group in Ohio.

Although Rusedski was not in contention for a place in next month's Masters Cup in Sydney, he was hoping to raise his entry-system ranking above No 29 to secure a seeding at the Australian Open in January.

Malisse played the more elegant tennis throughout, but Rusedski had three set points at 6-5 in the first set before Malisse won the tie-break 7-3. Rusedski created only one break point in the second set at 4-4, and was broken to 6-4 on the first match point. Rusedski, who defeated Malisse in their only previous match ­ in the semi-finals of the San Jose tournament in March, en route to beating Andre Agassi in the final ­ used to revel in the late-season indoor events, such as the one here in Paris, where he won the title in 1998, out-playing Pete Sampras in the final.

Injuries wrecked Rusedski's progress last year, when he finished the season ranked No 69. He spent the early part of this year modifying his serve to minimise further wear and tear on his body, and in April based himself in Barcelona to train for the clay-court season. He intends to take a short break before returning to Barcelona on 15 November to begin his preparation for the Australian Open. His next tournament will be in Auckland, New Zealand, on 8 January.

In common with Henman and Roger Taylor, Britain's Davis Cup captain, Rusedski is keen to research various indoor court surfaces before deciding which to choose for the first round tie against Sweden in the World Group at Birmingham National Arena in February. "We have to have a chat and figure it out," he said. "When we played America, we made the mistake of having a court that bounced a little bit too high."

It is possible that Gustavo Kuerten, who prefers the red clay up the road at Roland Garros and gave Wimbledon a miss this year, would conclude that grass is best used as wall decoration, although the Brazilian world No 1 has enough to occupy his mind trying to win a match. Kuerten has lost five matches in a row since reaching the quarter-finals at the US Open in September. As embarrassing sequences go, this is slightly less blushworthy than the six successive defeats that elevated Yevgeny Kafelnikov to No 1 in the world in May 1999, thanks to the vagaries of the computer rankings system.

In spite of Kuerten's recent slump, the Brazilian continues to lead the ATP Champions Race and has already qualified for the defence of the Masters Cup in Sydney on 12 November. Last year in Lisbon, it may be remembered, Kuerten defeated Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi back-to-back to win the Masters Cup and finish the year as No 1. Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt, of Australia, are duelling for the top position this year. Should Kuerten win the Paris Masters, he could increase his lead over Hewitt to 133 points. Hewitt would then have to win the Masters Cup to have a chance of overtaking the Brazilian. First things first. Bohdan Ulihrach, of the Czech Republic, is the player who stands between Kuerten and the end of his famine. Ulihrach, who defeated Francisco Clavet, a Spanish qualifier, in the first round yesterday, 6-3, 6-4, has lost all but one of his five previous matches against Kuerten. His solitary victory, 6-4, 6-4, was in Vienna in 1997 ­ the only other time that they have played each other on an indoor court.