Rafter's cold shoulder treatment

THE CASUALTY rate in the first round of the men's singles at the United States Open has been so severe that three of the four players who contested the Wimbledon semi-finals in July are either consulting medical specialists or, in the case of Tim Henman, having his broken game scanned.

THE CASUALTY rate in the first round of the men's singles at the United States Open has been so severe that three of the four players who contested the Wimbledon semi-finals in July are either consulting medical specialists or, in the case of Tim Henman, having his broken game scanned.

While glum tournament officials were digesting the loss of Pete Sampras, Rafter, the No 4 seed and champion for the past two years, walked to the net and retired after cajoling his damaged right shoulder through two hours and 39 minutes of intermittent agony against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline on Tuesday night.

When he did walk off, he was accompanied by boos from people with short memories. "That was not fair," Pioline said. "He gave up because he had a serious problem. I mean, he's defending champion here. He won the last two years. He loves the tournament."

Pioline has first-hand experience of Rafter's competitive spirit. The Australian recovered from two sets to love down to overhaul the Frenchman in a Davis Cup tie in Melbourne in 1997, a performance Rafter regards as the launching pad for his subsequent success.

As for the New York crowd, Rafter said: "Once one person starts booing, I guess the rest of them do. It's very sad. What can I do? I played here the last two years. I had a very good reception. To be booed off, that hurts, no doubt about it."

Rafter spent yesterday with doctors, hoping that their prognosis would not bring his season to a close, but knowing that he had little chance of being fit for Australia's Davis Cup semi-final against Russia in Brisbane in three weeks' time. The Australians are already fretting about the knee and ankle injuries threatening the participation of the big-serving Mark Philippoussis, who withdrew from the tournament on Saturday.

"I'm going to be there," Rafter promised, "on the sidelines or whatever, whether I'm playing or not." Such a gesture would be typical of the man, but the Aussies will need more than moral support.

By shaking hands with Pioline, who was leading 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1- 0, Rafter gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending US men's singles champion ever to lose in the opening round.

On Tuesday night, Rafter was unable to sustain his effort after winning the first two sets, and even then it was painful for him to serve, especially when there was a need for his "kicking" second serve. A tumble during the opening set worried his supporters, but Rafter said the fall did not affect the shoulder. "I was feeling pretty confident about having some good wins here," Rafter said, "and it's pretty tough to pull yourself off the court. I sat there after the 7-5 game [in the fourth set], and I knew I should have just walked off at that stage, but I didn't. Even if I had won that game, I couldn't see myself pulling up for the next match. But I still didn't want to walk off the court."

Henman was at a loss to explain the ineptitude of his performance against Guillermo Canas, an unspectacular Argentinian, who defeated the British No 1 in straight sets. Henman said he could only blame himself, adding that he is the one person who can put things right. Whenever Henman's form dips there is speculation concerning the future of his coach, David Felgate. Theirs is probably the closest association in the men's game, and there is no reason to believe that the man who helped Henman to advance to consecutive Wimbledon semi-finals and to No 5 in the world is suddenly offering unsound advice.

The friendship, trust and understanding between Henman and Felgate has been integral to the player's success, and ought to be encouraged. But it certainly might help if, from time to time, a second opinion were sought on a consultancy basis.

Although everybody was aware that Sampras, the world No 1, and Rafter, champion for the past two years, had nursed their way towards Flushing Meadow, the manner of their departures came as a shock.

It was not Sampras's strained hip that caused him to abandon his quest for a record 13th Grand Slam title, but a herniated disc in the lower back, which delivered its first stab of pain on Sunday, while the Californian was practising with the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten.

Sampras's prospects of returning in time to defend the year-end No 1 ranking he has held for a record six years are slim. He has been advised to rest for a month before preparing for a renewed campaign.

Martina Hingis, the 1997 women's singles champion, advanced to the third round, overwhelming Sarah Pitkowski, of France, 6-1, 6-1. Alexandra Stevenson, the only qualifier ever to reach the Wimbledon's women's semi-finals, was eliminated by Nathalie Tauziat, the 1998 Wimbledon finalist, 6-2, 6-2.

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