Rusedski is laid low but Henman hits high notes

British No 2 makes embarrassing early exit from Australian Open before facing drugs tribunal which could signal end of his career

A dismal defeat at the hands of the Spaniard Albert Costa in the first round of the Australian Open yesterday marked what may have been Greg Rusedski's final professional outing, with an antidoping tribunal poised to determine whether his career will be forever tainted by the stain of drugs.

A dismal defeat at the hands of the Spaniard Albert Costa in the first round of the Australian Open yesterday marked what may have been Greg Rusedski's final professional outing, with an antidoping tribunal poised to determine whether his career will be forever tainted by the stain of drugs.

While his fellow Briton, Tim Henman, glided into the second round with a straight sets win over Jean-René Lisnard, Rusedski was beaten 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He blamed a bout of gastroenteritis for his insipid performance, saying that a heavy fever last weekend had sabotaged his preparation for the season's first Grand Slam here at Melbourne Park.

"I've hit half an hour of tennis balls since Saturday," he said. "It wasn't the ideal preparation, coming into a major and playing a good player like Costa." But with his hearing in Montreal looming in little over a fortnight, the British No 2 had weightier matters on his mind. If the tribunal rules against him, he will be suspended for up to two years and stripped of all the ranking points he has earned since testing positive for a steroid, nandrolone, last July.

Even if his ban is limited to the minimum three months, Rusedski - whose ranking has dropped to No 119 because of persistent injury - would be forced to qualify for Wimbledon and other majors. That would be not merely humiliating but also hard work, and at the age of 30 he may have little appetite for it. It seems unlikely that, as a convicted drug cheat, he would receive wild cards at Grand Slams.

The Canadian-born Briton, who admitted to the positive drugs test two weeks ago, reiterated his determination to clear his name. "I just hope that the result comes that I desire," he said. "I know I'm innocent in the situation."

His defence relies on the fact that illegal levels of nandrolone have been detected in seven other players. However, unlike the others, his sample was taken after trainers employed by the men's tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, had stopped giving out nutritional supplements and electrolyte drinks, fearing they could be responsible for a flurry of positive tests.

Despite that, Rusedski said yesterday that his lawyers were investigating whether the others might give evidence on his behalf. "I'm hoping some of them will come forward and help me because they've been put in such a similar situation," he said.

One of them, Bohdan Ulihrach, of the Czech Republic, had already promised to help, he said. A two-year ban imposed on Ulihrach last May was lifted after the ATP said the supplements could be to blame.

Rusedski's heart was never in yesterday's match. He handed the Spanish No 26 seed a 2-0 lead in sets in barely an hour, and then unleashed his 29th error to give Costa victory on the second match point.

While the left-hander sweated in an enervating 36C heat that drove him to put his rackets in the drinks fridge, Henman - on a typically changeable Melbourne day - was surprised to find himself playing on a cold evening with intermittent drizzle.

It mattered not, for his hapless French opponent could do nothing right, failing even to check the time of the match. Lisnard turned up three hours early at the Margaret Court Arena in the belief that the tie would follow the afternoon's play, rather than beginning at an hour more propitious for British television schedules. Officials gently pointed out his mistake and he left court.

When play did get under way, Lisnard was thoroughly outclassed. The British No 1 dominated with his serve-and-volley game and conceded just three break points, none of which the lowly-ranked Frenchman managed to convert.

The rowdy crowd showed little etiquette, forcing delays as they stood up and shouted at inopportune moments. One man spilled a tray of drinks over himself as he entered the arena, speaking on a mobile telephone, as a point was being played. Cries of "Go back to England" could be heard in the stands.

Henman, the No 11 seed, was briefly distracted, serving two double-faults at 4-3 in the third set. But he collected himself, saved a break point with an ace and wrapped up the match 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in an hour and 34 minutes. "The tone that I set early on was very important," Henman said. "I was aggressive from the outset. I was chipping and charging, and not giving him the rhythm that he needs to play his game."

Henman, who next meets Radek Stepanek, of the Czech Republic, said he enjoyed hearing British supporters sing the England rugby anthem, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". "It was a first for me at a tennis match," he said. "It was certainly fun out there, fairly Wimbledon-like."

The men's field lost six more seeds yesterday, including the No 5, Guillermo Coria, of Argentina, who lost to France's Cyril Saulnier. The other casualties were Martin Verkerk, the No 17, Felix Mantilla, the No 23, Max Mirnyi, the No 24, Jonas Bjorkman, the No 25, and Felicio Lopez, seeded 28th.

Roger Federer, the Swiss No 2 seed, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, the Spanish No 3, had easy wins, as did Argentina's David Nalbandian, the No 8, and Australia's 10th-seeded Mark Philippoussis. The smoothest ride was had by the Australian Lleyton Hewitt, with Cecil Mamiit retiring in the third set.

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