It was midnight at the United States Open and there was bedlam in Louis Armstrong Stadium. Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, having lost a 4-0 lead in the final set of his second-round match against Paradorn Srichaphan, a tenacious, highly-skilled Thai, and received a code violation for swearing at a line judge after being foot-faulted when serving for the match at 5-2, then rescued two break points when serving for the match for the second time at 5-4, was on the verge of salvation.
A small group of Canadian supporters in a corner of the stands had waved the Maple Leaf flag for more than three-and-a-half hours and had called out the number on each of the Montreal-born Rusedski's 20 aces. Their chants were answered by a hearty band of Srichaphan's from Thailand gathered at the other end of the stadium. Here and there, mischievous New York voices could be heard shouting "foot-fault!" each time Rusedski hit a serve.
The cool air also seemed to be filled with the ghosts of Rusedski's five-set nightmares past, particularly the American Todd Martin, who recovered from two sets to love down to overhaul him in the fourth round of the 1999 US Open. Rusedski admitted that the haunting crossed his mind but was swiftly shut out before he shaped up to serve on match point.
The serve was true, and the follow-up backhand volley defied intervention. Game, set and match to Rusedski – 3-6 7-6 7-6 6-7 6-4. Sweet relief! "I was very measured," Rusedski said. "I wasn't going to miss that ball."
We are going to see more of Srichaphan, and soon. He is due to lead his country into next month's Davis Cup World Group qualifying round tie against Britain at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham 20 days hence. The abiding image after the chimes at midnight here on Friday was of the 23-year-old from Bangkok raising his arms like a victor as he received a deserved ovation.
His solid serving, athletic movement and breathtaking passing shots, particularly on the backhand, had taken Rusedski to the limit in one of the most exciting contests of the opening week of the tournament.
"Rusedski's serve was too big from the beginning to the end," Srichaphan said. "It's difficult to read his serve, and he puts a pretty big kick on it. I was playing my best and it was close in the fifth. But he was still strong. He's tough."
By this time Rusedski was on his way to bed, having vented his feelings about the umpiring – "I just wish they'd let the players play rather than trying to get involved, but unfortunately common sense wasn't used today" – and paid tribute to Srichaphan: "It was great tennis from the first ball to the last ball. He played exceptionally well."
Rusedski, who came into the tournament convinced he was ready to have his best run since losing to Pat Rafter in the 1997 final, is due to test his form against Pete Sampras, the four-times former champion, in the third round. Sampras, 31, has not won a tournament since defeating Rafter at Wimbledon in 2000, the Californian's 13th Grand Slam title.
"A lot of the guys in the locker room feel they can beat Pete now," said Rusedski, whose most impressive performance was in defeating Sampras in the final of the 1998 Paris Indoor Masters tournament when the American was en route to completing a record sixth consecutive season as the world No 1.
"That invincibility isn't there now," Rusedski added, while careful to cover his tracks with a rider: "You can never discount Pete. He's still a great player and he knows he's got a lot on the line here. If he doesn't do well, his ranking is going to be down to 50. He knows he has to play well." Sampras, who has only had to save two break points in 30 service games in his opening two matches, straight-sets wins against Albert Portas, of Spain, and Kristian Pless, of Denmark, views the approaching Rusedski in his customary calm manner.
"The match is going to be completely different than my first two matches," he said. "It's going to come down to my return. He can be very dominating. Hopefully I can get a hold of his serve. It should be a tough match." Many Americans still believe Sampras has the magic they first saw when he became the youngest ever men's singles champion here in 1990, even though Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt have taken him apart in the past two finals in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Rusedski anticipates massive support for his opponent. "That's the big match," he said. "I'm sure it's going to be loud. But it can't get much louder than Friday night. That was good preparation."
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