Rusedski relief as comeback ends in triumph

British No 2 steadies nerves after injury problems with confident first-round win over Swede

It was fortuitous for Greg Rusedski that his first match for six weeks proved to be little more than a loosener against Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, who played like the second oldest man at the United States Open (33 years, seven months) and extended his record of first-round defeats here to six.

It was fortuitous for Greg Rusedski that his first match for six weeks proved to be little more than a loosener against Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, who played like the second oldest man at the United States Open (33 years, seven months) and extended his record of first-round defeats here to six.

That said, Rusedski's real opponent yesterday was himself as he set out to prove that his right foot injury had healed and that the rhythm of his serve was in the process of restoration. In those terms, his victory, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 after an hour and 34 minutes, was a minor triumph.

The British No 2, who had not lost to Gustafsson in three previous matches between 1993 and 1998, had a comfortable morning, helped by Gustafsson's 32 unforced errors and hapless demeanour, but reinforced by the sweet power consistency of his serving (64 per cent on the first serve), the confidence of his movement and the crispness of his volleying. If this was a practice session for tests to come, Rusedski practised well.

He was called on to save two break points, one in the fourth game (the only game in which he conceded any points on serve in the opening set, five in total) and the other when leading 3-1 in the second set. Having elected to receive serve on Court No 11, Rusedski broke in the opening game of the match and won the first set after 28 minutes with a third break. He broke in the fourth and eighth games of the second set and terminated any prospect of a revival by Gustafsson by breaking in the 10th game of the third set, the Swede missing a forehand on Rusedski's third match point.

"It's a step forward in a building process," Rusedski said. "I was very nervous before the match, more nervous than I have been for a few years. I wasn't really concerned whether I won or lost out there, to be honest. I just wanted to get through the match playing the way I want and to stay healthy. I don't think I've felt like that all year. I was attacking more, I was chipping and charging, I served smart, going for the big ones when I needed to, and I missed only two volleys."

Rusedski now plays Cedric Pioline, the French No 10 seed, who defeated Sargis Sargsian of Armenia 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. "I have a horrible record against Pioline," Rusedski said. "I've only beaten him once out of five tries."

When Rusedski reached the final here in 1997, he was defeated by Australia's Pat Rafter, who successfully defended the title the following year. Rafter's next high-profile engagement will be a jog with the Olympic torch for 500 metres within sight of Sydney Opera House on Circular Quay - hardly a test for the 27-year-old Australian's suspect right shoulder to compare with his first round match here on Tuesday night.

Rafter, the men's singles champion here also in 1998 (when he beat his compatriot Mark Philippoussis), lost to Galo Blanco, of Spain, but at least the shoulder withstood the strain of five sets played over three hours.

Although the unseeded Rafter led 4-2 in the fifth set tie-break, he was unable to subdue the lively Blanco, who won the shoot-out, 7-5, for a 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 victory that takes him into a second round match against Sweden's Thomas Johansson.

"The shoulder does feel good," Rafter said, taking consolation from the fact that the Olympic Games and the Davis Cup final against Spain in Barcelona in December remain on his horizon. "I need matches, and they haven't come," he added. "It's a question of doing a lot of hard work no to try and get the form back."

Rafter had surgery to his shoulder last last year and was out of the game for five months, missing the Australian Open in January this year. He marked his recovery with a trip to the Netherlands to win the Heineken Trophy in June. Seeded No 12 for Wimbledon, he advanced to the final, losing to Pete Sampras.

A quarter-finalist in Toronto early this month, Rafter felt soreness in the shoulder again and withdrew from the tournament in Cincinnati, returning to play in Long Island last week, losing to Michael Chang in the third round.

"It's been a funny last couple of months coming into this," Rafter said. "I didn't give my self a lot of opportunities throughout the match; just far too many unforced errors. Galo put in a good performance and was just too good on the night. He's a talented player."

Anna Kournikova opened the tournament with a 6-2, 6-3 win against the American Holly Parkinson and then explained why she split from her latest coach, Eric Van Harpen, who has guided her career since last year's US Open. "He cannot travel for personal reasons," Kournikova said. "Right now, my parents are helping me."

Monica Seles, twice a champion here, became the first woman into the third round with a 6-4 6-3 victory over Anne Kremer.

The 35th-ranked player from Luxembourg had beaten Seles in their lone previous meeting last year on grass and gave her another good match on Wednesday. But Seles, a four-time US Open finalist and winner in 1991 and 1992, was not about to stumble at this early stage of a major championship and the sixth seed was in control throughout, despite not playing as well as she would have liked.

"At times I got tight but I lifted my game at the key points," said Seles, whose match began under gloomy, gray skies but ended in bright sunshine.

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