Rusedski nightmare is mercifully brief

Greg Rusedski's dismal record on the clay courts of Rome continued yesterday when the British No 2 was outplayed, 6-3, 6-1, by Fernando Vicente, a 23-year-old Spaniard with a natural instinct for the sport's slowest surface.

It was Rusedski's sixth defeat in seven matches at the Foro Italico, the exception being a 7-6, 7-6 win against Australia's Scott Draper in the first round last year.

Gustavo Kuerten and Pat Rafter, who were asked to make the draw for the Italian Open last year and ended up meeting in the final, went their separate ways yesterday.

Rafter, competing in only his fifth singles tournament of the year after surgery to his right shoulder last October, was defeated in the opening round by Bohdan Ulihrach, a Czech qualifier, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. Rafter's prospects were not helped by the wet conditions, which made the clay court slower and the balls heavier.

Ulihrach, whose three ATP Tour titles have been won on clay, has reached two quarter-finals this year, in Santiago and Estoril. He has twice advanced to the third round in Rome.

Kuerten, whose defence of the Monte Carlo Open last month ended with a first-round defeat and a pain in the back, was in brighter form all round. Leaving his rivals to cope with the frustrations of the raindelays, the Brazilian opened his defence of the Italian title with a 6-4, 6-1 win against the Frenchman Jerome Golmard.

"I feel good. I feel no pain. It's pleasant to play like this," Kuerten said. Having contrived a smile through his distress after losing to Karol Kucera in Monte Carlo three weeks ago, Kuerten had no difficulty looking cheerful here.

Adriano Panatta, the last great Italian player and now tournament director of this ATP Tour Tennis Masters Series event in Rome, says he does not understand why so many of the current players always look so serious, adding that Kuerten is an exception.

"I think this has a lot to do with the personality," Kuerten said. "Everyone has their own way to do their best on the court: smiling, being serious. I just try to be myself."

Kuerten's approach makes him one of the most appealing of players. His cheerful disposition has enabled him to conceal discomfort and win important matches, such as when he defeated Kucera in five sets in Rio de Janeiro in early April to help take Brazil to the Davis Cup semi-finals.

"It was a month or two months that I was unable to play without having pain," he said. "Today I felt much more comfortable, the way I am when I am in my best form."

There was one uncomfortable moment at the end of the first set when Kuerten called for the physiotherapist, but it was only a precaution. "I'm still having a lot of treatment and I'm still a little bit afraid of what's going to happen," Kuerten said. "I just told the trainer how I was feeling and asked if I was doing the right things. I am able to run and move as my body goes, not having to push all the time like I had to before."

After Kuerten won the French Open in 1997, Brazilian tennis regained a sense of identity missing since the glory days of Maria Bueno. "The tennis schools are full, and we have a lot of young guys that should be playing well in a few years," Kuerten said. "The Davis Cup has created a lot of interest. Hopefully, we can have at least one tournament here so the kids will be able to see someone playing closer and get the feeling that one day they will try to do the same."

Alex Corretja, of Spain, the winner of the year's first Masters Series event in Indian Wells, California, advanced to the second round here after a close contest against Kucera. Corretja, seeded No 10, won,6-2, 4-6, 7-6, taking the tie-break 7-5.

Andrei Medvedev, who was defeated by Andre Agassi in the French Open final last June, reached the second round with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 win against the Swiss, Roger Federer.

Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, who lost to Cedric Pioline in the Monte Carlo final, proved too adept for the American qualifier Jeff Tarango, winning in straight sets.