Rusedski recaptures the razzle of long ago

Davis Cup » Greg gives a rare glimpse of vintage form to lead the British fightback after the Henman horror show

A thrillingly-achieved victory by Greg Rusedski, his first on clay for three years, kept Britain in with a chance against Austria in the play-off to decide which nation goes through to the Davis Cup's élite 16-nation World Group in 2005.

Rusedski, in admirable attack-minded mood, lifted British spirits by defeating Austria's No 1, Jürgen Melzer, 3-6 6-3 6-4 7-6 after Tim Henman had suffered a shock 6-3 6-3 6-1 defeat against Stefan Koubek in the opening rubber. In this extra-long day's tennis brought about by Friday's washout, the Austrian pairing of Julian Knowle and Alexander Peya were leading Henman and Rusedski 6-4 1-6 6-2 when failing light halted play. This crucial doubles will be completed this morning, followed by the remaining two singles matches.

Henman's defeat was his worst-ever in the competition. He was never in the match, outgunned, outrun and embarrassingly outthought in 113 minutes by a bouncy, fit opponent who looked as if he runs up mountains for a lark. Koubek made his world ranking of 82 look absurd, and his watching captain, the former "iron man" of tennis, Thomas Muster, must have felt he was watching a mirror image of his old self.

The peroxided left-hander broke Henman's opening service game to love, assisted by the first of the British No 1's four double-faults. Having promised a court that would play slow even by the standards of clay, the Austrians duly delivered. Henman, watched glumly by his parents and wife Lucy, struggled to achieve any sort of penetration on serve and was a set behind after 38 minutes.

The small lakeside stadium contained a solid block of flag-bedecked British supporters, but they were not in the decibel class of the Austrian bass drummer who arrived for the second set. One elderly local, possibly chairman of the Portschach Noise Abatement Society, finally seized the drumstick and tried to kick the offending instrument down the concrete steps. The drummer took the hint and moved to a far corner to continue pounding.

Not even the excellent support he was receiving could rouse poor Henman; he went two sets behind after 81 minutes, and was entitled to look disconsolate, since Koubek's skills were abetted by much luck. The lines were regularly clipped and every net-cord seemed to go Austria's way, while Henman's best efforts missed by a millimetre.

Henman did finally manage to break Koubek, for the only time in the match, early in the third set, but he had already dropped his own serve by then and did so twice more. The subsidence verged on the embarrassing as the player who has so often been the nation's hero in this competition lost the last four games for a haul of just four points.

As Koubek celebrated his unexpected victory, the stadium loudspeakers struck up a Strauss waltz, The Blue Danube. Good Night Vienna might have been more appropriate from the British point of view. Henman dismissed the early start (at 8.43am British time) as a reason for his defeat. "I have a daughter," he explained. But he did concede that a rash of unforced errors was a contributory factor. "I never got the balance right between being aggressive and consistent," he admitted.

However, Henman did not have a monopoly of the day's indifferent tennis. Melzer was wretchedly out of sorts, his backhand buckling under Rusedski's relentless assault. Greg's latest affectation is an Alice band to restrain his newly tinted locks but that was the only remotely girlish thing about the performance.

Things looked bleak for Britain when, having missed three chances to break the ponytailed Melzer in the opening game, Rusedski dropped the first set to a fellow lefthander on a single break of serve in the sixth game. The Austrian impressed at this stage by successfully playing the sort of serve-volley stuff expected of Henman, but he was rapidly converted to the role of struggler by Rusedski's counter-attack.

It was the sort of big-hearted tennis that Rusedski is able to produce only rarely at the age of 31, especially on clay. The swing did not come until midway through the second set, sparked by Rusedski's saving of three break-points at 2-2. To shrieks of delight from the British, he swept three games in succession to love to win the set and promptly broke a distraught Melzer again at the start of the third.

Now the serves were booming down in familiar fashion and Rusedski, skipping away after each winner, closed out the third set in grass-court fashion with a service winner to reach set point, followed by a crunching forehand volley.

Another break for the Briton early in the fourth had Melzer belting a ball out of the stadium and hurling his racket into the dust. It seemed to help, since he won the next four games to lead 5-2, but when he served to level the match an overreliance on the drop shot cost him.

Now it was Rusedski's turn to run off three straight games to produce a tiebreak in which, having surged 5-1 up, he eventually prevailed by seven points to four before reaching up to high-five his team-mates at courtside. Brtain's captain, Jeremy Bates, lauded it as "one of the most inspiring performances Greg has ever had on clay. The strength he showed out there was incredible. It was one of Britain's greatest-ever Davis Cup wins."

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