Rusedski's epic win puts GB on course

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The Independent Online

He has played many better matches on much more glamorous stages, but Greg Rusedski chose what could be the last contest of his career here yesterday to deliver the grittiest Davis Cup performance of his life.

The 33-year-old veteran of 42 matches for his country nursed his injured hip through five sets and three and three-quarter hours to earn victory over Sergei Stakhovsy in the opening rubber of Britain's relegation play-off against Ukraine. With Andy Murray then beating Alexander Dolgopolov Jnr in straight sets, John Lloyd's team should now avoid the drop into Group Two of the Europe-Africa zone - effectively the Davis Cup's third division.

Stakhovsy, Ukraine's best player, is ranked No 188 in the world, but at 20 years old he fancied his chances against Rusedski, who is thinking more and more about retirement. His hip has been a major factor in a miserable year which has seen him drop to No 136 in the rankings and win only seven tour matches.

Whatever his problems, Rusedski has remained a scrapper and showed all his fighting spirit in a match he had seemed on the brink of losing several times. He was all at sea in the first set, trailed two sets to one and 0-3 and saved a match point before winning 1-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 9-7.

"It was one of my best performances mentally," Rusedski said. "It was an occasion where 15 years of experience comes in handy. Physically you're not like you were when you were 20, but mentally that makes a difference. I'm not moving as well as I was in the past, but I showed spirit out there and that counts for a lot.

"Even when I was match point down I never really felt I was out of it. I thought I would find a way to win. I'm stubborn. I refuse to lose."

Lloyd, in his first match as captain, described it as Rusedski's greatest Davis Cup performance, considering the stage he has reached in his career. It was only on Wednesday that Lloyd decided to play Rusedski in the singles, having feared that his injury would mean he would only play in the doubles.

Lloyd said he would decide this morning whether to play Rusedski alongside Murray in this afternoon's doubles. If Britain were to secure the tie today without Rusedski - who would almost certainly not play in tomorrow's dead rubbers - it could mean that yesterday will have been his last competitive appearance.

Stakhovsky outwitted Rusedski in the first set with a succession of drop shots. The Briton's movement looked wooden and his shots were so predictable that the Ukrainian, who lost to Murray in the 2004 US Open junior final, was even reading where he would place his smashes.

After breaking serve in the fourth and sixth games Stakhovsky closed out the first set in just 26 minutes with a smash and an ace. Rusedski saved two break points in the next game, but from 2-2 enjoyed a purple patch, winning 12 of the next 13 points to take a decisive lead in the second set.

The third went with serve until Stakhovsky broke at 6-5. The Ukrainian then went 3-0 up in the fourth, only for Rusedski to respond with five games in a row.

It was the Briton who generally struggled to hold his serve in the latter stages of the final set, but at 7-7 Stakhovsky's nerve broke. From 15-15 he served a double fault and made two volley errors to give Rusedski his break. The Briton served out to love, securing victory with a delicate drop volley behind a powerful serve.

Murray had been slipping away from his own preparations to watch through a fence at the back of the court, one of seven at the Odessa Lawn Tennis Club. At the other end Rusedski had had to remove leaves from the court, which is surrounded by trees, before starting the match.

A temporary stand for nearly 1,000 people was only three-quarters full, but the smattering of British supporters had plenty to cheer as Murray proved much too good for Dolgopolov, winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Dolgopolov, an unorthodox and unpredictable player, had his moments, but the ability of Murray shone through with a succession of winning drop shots, passes and volleys.

Davis Cup Euro/Africa Zone Group 1 2nd Play-off (Odessa): First Rubber G Rusedski (GB) bt S Stakhovsky (Ukr) 1-6 6-3 5-7 6-4 9-7. Second Rubber A Murray (GB) bt A Dolgopolov (Ukr) 6-3 6-4 6-2.