Pioline battles back to defeat Rusedski

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The Independent Online

John McEnroe described Cedric Pioline last week as one of the best players never to win a Grand Slam. The 39-year-old Frenchman underlined that point at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday when he followed up his victory over Pete Sampras by beating Greg Rusedski in a thrilling final of the BlackRock Masters.

Pioline, who won 6-7, 7-6, 11-9 in a match lasting an hour and 45 minutes, came back from 4-1 down in the deciding champions' tie-break, in which he also saved a match point when serving at 8-9. He went on to win the next two points, securing victory with one of the best shots of the week, a big forehand winner down the line. "It came down to a few points and I think at the end maybe I just returned a little bit better than him," Pioline said afterwards.

Rusedski, who won all three of his round-robin matches, played the better tennis in the first set, but the momentum swung with the second set tie-break. "I was just one or two points short," Rusedski said. "Cedric played great and he's a deserving champion."

The attendance for the whole week was nearly 35,000, a record for the event, and Saturday's crowd were treated to a major upset with Pioline's 7-6, 7-6 victory over Sampras.

The 37-year-old American had beaten Pioline in all nine of their matches on the main tour, including the finals of Wimbledon in 1997 and the US Open in 1993, but the Frenchman returned serve superbly to spring the biggest surprise of the tournament.

"I always used to have problems returning his serve," Pioline said. "Suddenly, I could read his serve. I don't know why." Sampras called it "a dogfight" and added: "Cedric is returning better today than he did back when." The defeat did not detract from Sampras' visit though. "This place brings back memories, just being here and seeing the British people. It was good to be back."