The seagull got off lightly, but the Swiss umpire, Andreas Egli, went to bed with expletives ringing in his ears. Egli refused to bow to Greg Rusedski's demands for a line call at a critical stage of his Australian Open match against Tim Henman here yesterday. And that, according to Rusedski's furious calculations, cost him the tie and possibly the tournament.
After losing the first set and saving two set points at 3-5 down in the second, Rusedski finally had a break point and was jubilant after a Henman volley seemed to land long. But the ball was not called out, and Egli remained unmoved as a fuming Rusedski flung down his racket and marched towards the net.
The television replays showed the ball apparently grazing the back of the baseline, but the incident was the turning-point of the all-British encounter here at Melbourne Park. Henman, who produced one of his best performances outside Wimbledon, won the set and – after a brief comeback by Rusedski – wrapped up the match 6-4, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.
Rusedski made no secret of his despair at being knocked out of the draw, which presented no heavyweight opponents en route to the final a week tomorrow. "I felt this was my tournament," he said. "That's why this is so extremely difficult to take. Looking at the draw, I thought I'm going to go all the way. I didn't have a question. I felt really confident, the best I've felt in years." Henman, who plays Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman in the fourth round tomorrow, was more cautious about his chances, despite being – at No 6 – the top surviving seed. "I've never been past the fourth round in this tournament, so for me to start looking at next Sunday is a million miles away," he said.
An air of fevered anticipation – at home, if not in Australia – had surrounded the first Grand Slam meeting between the British pair, and they responded by putting on a show of brilliant tennis. Henman had the edge overall, but Rusedski, fired up by the second set controversy, was fearsome in the third and looked as though he might bulldoze his way to victory.
The night match, played before a record crowd of nearly 15,000 in the Rod Laver Arena, was followed with polite interest by Australian spectators, who have no domestic players left in the men's competition.
More noise was made by a small group of British fans with Union flags painted on their faces, although there was considerable confusion on the issue of where to direct their support. Some solved the problem by cheering each winning point and groaning theatrically at every mistake. "Go Tim and Greg!" shouted one non-partisan fan.
The match began under blue skies that gave way to pink as Rusedski fired his first ace at 127mph. Half an hour later, at 5-4 up, Henman had two set points against his opponent's serve at 15-40. As Rusedski prepared to serve, play was delayed by an errant gull that flew into the stadium and executed a dozen laps before finally departing to loud applause.
The Canadian-born Rusedski, the British No 2, may have been distracted by the interruption; when play resumed, he sent a backhand wide. In the second set, he saved a succession of break points after his serve was broken in the second game. Then came the infamous Henman volley, with Egli's silence earning him a torrent of invective between sets.
"You should be embarrassed with yourself," Rusedski raged at the umpire. "That's disgusting. How could you miss that call? It was that far long. What are you looking at? Are you watching a different match?" The outburst appeared to have a cathartic effect, for the momentum changed dramatically in the third set. With a new purpose in his step, Rusedski went on the offensive. Winners flowed from his racket as he took command of the match, muttering to himself and hitting the ball as if it was Egli's head.
The crowd, who had booed the umpire earlier, was firmly behind him as he slaughtered the set in 29 minutes. But Henman, the British No 1, was in no mood to concede. He broke serve early in the fourth set thanks to two exquisite lobs and terminated the match with a high backhand volley after an agonisingly long final game in which he faced three break points.
It had not been an easy match to play, he said, given that he and Rusedski were compatriots and "a lot of rubbish" had been written about their relationship. "I feel that's firmly been put behind us and it showed in our attitude on the court," he said. "We both went out there and we fought as hard as we could and, fortunately for me, it went my way." Henman added: "I'm really pleased with the way I played and I'm happy with the way things are going, but it's going to get tougher and tougher. I'm very conscious of what lies ahead."
Rusedski, the No 28 seed, was inconsolable. "It came down to one or two calls, and I handled it the best way I could by coming back and winning the third set," he said. "But the way I lost the match, and the way the tournament has opened up, that's the hardest."