Relieved Rusedski rediscovers his touch

 

Those who had watched Greg Rusedski hammering aces past Marcelo Rios at the Harry Hopman tennis school in Florida last week, and scooting around the courts with burgeoning confidence, were rather more optimistic about his chances of winning his first match in the US Open yesterday than those whose last memories were of his painful summer on grass.

The optimists were proved right, with Rusedski defeating Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson 6-1 6-2 6-4 in just over an hour and a half. "I was very nervous about this match, perhaps more than at any other time in my career," said Rusedski, whose last win had been against Germany's Jens Knippschild at Queen's in mid-June.

Gustafsson, at 33 years of age one of the oldest players on the circuit, has been easing down his playing commitments, although he won his last tournament in Amsterdam in July, the 14th title of a long career during which he has only once progressed beyond the last 16 of a slam, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 1994.

Whereas Rusedski, despite the nerves, was raring to get back into the fray, the Swede looked slow and stiff, and while his potentially destructive forehand obstinately refused to function, his frustration increased accordingly.

Rusedski mixed up his serve intelligently and served crisply, breaking both of Gustafsson's first two service games, and never looking back. It was by far his best performance of a year which has been little short of disastrous. His right foot, which was operated on last December, has continued to worry him and it was only a further course of treatment in Germany, immediately after the Davis Cup, that enabled him to return to full training and practice.

"It was a huge sense of relief to finish this match healthy. It is no more than a stepping block at the moment but I hope I will be able to make up for things in 2001," he said.

Rusedski, who has slipped to number 34 in the world rankings, will need to win many more matches before he convinces anybody, and most of all himself, that his injury problems are behind him but here, at the very least, was a ray of much needed hope.

Certainly if Britain are to stand any chance of returning to the elite group of the Davis Cup they need Rusedski to be fit. Of those immediately behind him in the pecking order, Arvind Parmar and Martin Lee failed to qualify for the US Open, while Jamie Delgado and Barry Cowan, for all their qualification efforts, were outclassed in the first round proper.

There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the female fans when Pat Rafter was dispatched into the Flushing Meadows hereafter by the Spaniard Galo Blanco, ranked 114th.

The Australian, who won back-to-back US Open titles in 1997 and 1998, and who lost this year's Wimbledon final against Pete Sampras, went down 7-6 2-6 6-3 1-6 7-6 - made all the more galling by the fact that Blanco had never won a five-set match in his career before.

Rafter, who had not played since reaching the quarter-finals of the Canadian Open at the beginning of August, missed shots he would normally have put away nine times out of 10, and admitted afterwards that the forthcoming Olympic Games, coupled with the final of the Davis Cup against Spain in December, had been preying on his mind.

"It's been hard for me to focus," said Rafter, which was really no sort of excuse at all for a first-round defeat, although the Sydney Games obviously mean more to the Australians than many other players involved.

Andre Agassi, whose level of commitment this summer has been several notches lower than last year when he won this title for a second time, has revealed that both his mother, Elizabeth, and his sister, Tammee, were suffering from cancer.

"My Mom was diagnosed just a month ago, and it hasn't been easy to concentrate. In many ways it has gotten the family stronger and close. It has given me the perspective that sometimes, unfortunately, only certain tragedies can bring, and I'm trying to use it in a positive way."

Agassi next plays the Frenchman Arnaud Clement in the second round.