Rusedski bows out but finds succour in 'sympathetic' crowd

British No 2 hopes media storm over failed drugs test will blow over as Auckland Open's top seed withdraws

Greg Rusedski heads for Melbourne today to prepare for the Australian Open, hoping that attention will now be focused on his tennis rather than on the banned steroid found in his system.

Few expect his wish to be granted. As a high-profile player who has failed a drugs test, Rusedski - who was knocked out of the Sydney warm-up tournament yesterday by Australia's Mark Philippoussis - will face relentless scrutiny at the season's opening Grand Slam.

For a man whose career hangs in the balance, the British No 2 has displayed remarkable sang-froid at the adidas International this week. He has played respectable tennis and calmly answered the barrage of questions about the nandrolone detected in a sample he gave in Indianapolis last July.

Yesterday he put up a spirited fight against the higher-ranked Australian before going down 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. "I think I played well," he said afterwards. "This is my fourth match of the year and, with everything that's going on at the moment, I'm extremely pleased with my performance. If I can improve on today, I think I'll do well in Melbourne and be quite dangerous to a lot of players."

Rusedski, who faces an anti-doping tribunal in Montreal next month, released a statement about his positive drugs test last week after being repeatedly questioned about it by journalists. The Canadian-born Briton denies any wrongdoing, claiming that the testing procedures of the ATP, the governing body of men's tennis, are flawed.

Yesterday he said that he believed the media frenzy provoked by his statement had died down. "Everything has been said that needs to be said, so hopefully in Melbourne I'll only be asked about tennis, which will be nice for me," he said. "I'm 30 years old, and this is a period in my career when I want to enjoy it and do my best."

Philippoussis, the world No 11 and a Wimbledon finalist last year, was wearing a tie-dyed shirt with a swirly pattern which he hoped - he had joked the previous day - would "give my opponents headaches". But it was his superior tennis and match sharpness which took out Rusedski in the second round.

The Australian broke serve once to take the first set, but then faltered in the second, allowing Rusedski to even the score with a near flawless performance. But, sorely short of match practice after spending most of last season out of action because of injuries, the left-hander failed to seize the opportunity offered by two break points at 4-4 in the third set. Philippoussis held serve and then broke Rusedski's to clinch the match.

No adverse comments were made about the Briton by the partisan crowd. "They behaved immaculately," he said. "They gave me support and cheered me from the first ball to the last, even though I was playing an Australian. I can't ask for more. I think people feel sympathetic to my situation."

In other matches, the former world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt beat Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, 6-4, 6-1 to join Philippoussis in the quarter-finals, while another Australian, Todd Reid, upset Spain's Felix Mantilla 6-4, 6-1. Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan defeated Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden, 7-5, 1-6, 6-1.

In the women's draw, Justine Henin-Hardenne, the world No 1, opened her season with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Conchita Martinez. The Belgian trailed 0-2 before recovering to take the first set in 39 minutes.

She said afterwards: "I'm very happy to win my first match. The first match of the season is never easy."

Amélie Mauresmo, of France, and America's Lindsay Davenport also advanced to the quarter-finals.

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