Rusedski and Graf stutter to victory

 

The anchor men and women on American television, ever mindful of the ratings, rarely say goodbye. "Don't go away," they burble, or "Stay with us.' The few Greg Rusedski fans on the main Arthur Ashe court at Flushing Meadows found themselves desperately muttering similar phrases yesterday, for at 6-4, 5-4 down against South Africa's Wayne Ferreira there seemed every prospect of a precipitous first-round farewell.

But an awful service game by Ferreira, a renowned choker, and an even worse tie-break, allowed the British number one to level at 1-1 and thereafter the match took on a drama way above the quality of the tennis, Rusedski finally winning 4-6, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4.

Last year Rusedski stormed to the final and thus became the first British man to reach the final of the US Open singles since Fred Perry won the title in 1936.

It would have been a huge anticlimax if he had fallen at the first hurdle this time, although it would not have been totally unexpected. The ankle injury he suffered during the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's in June had wrecked all his plans, beginning with Wimbledon.

As soon as the draw was made it seemed likely this was going to be a particularly stiff test. The 28-year-old Ferreira has exceptional talent but a suspect temperament.

Nevertheless, he can upset the very best and has frequently managed to get the better of Pete Sampras on the ATP Tour circuit. Rusedski, having played in only two hard-court tournaments since he defaulted at Wimbledon, quickly found himself in trouble and his body language, noticeably during the second set, pointed directly towards the long goodbye.

But Ferreira's abject inability to nail a two-set lead enabled Rusedski back into the match.

Rusedski's injury worries pale when compared to those of Steffi Graf. After surgery on her left knee last year, Graf made several false starts to her comeback and was hustled out of Wimbledon in the third round by Natasha Zvereva of Belarus, who in 18 previous attempts had never beaten her.

However, Graf arrived in New York on the back of a tournament win in New Haven, Connecticut, her first title of the year and 104th in total, and there were immediate signs of a returning confidence when she rattled through the opening set of her first-round match against the 20-year-old American Corina Morariu in 32 minutes of controlled aggression.

However, this was only Graf's 26th match this year and, when Morariu began to dig in at the start of the second set, the former world number one, with 21 Grand Slam titles to her name, suddenly looked like a nervous novice. Unforced errors swirled off her racket as she began to rush her shots and Morariu took the second set.

"I told myself it was not the way to continue. I thought about my win last week and then cut down my mistakes." Graf re-applied the pressure of the first set, Moriaru found her own game disintegrating and Graf won 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.

Early women's winners yesterday included Fabiola Zuluaga of Colombia, a 6-4 6-4 victor against Italian Rita Grande, and American Jacqueline Trail, who advanced when Argentine Mariana Diaz-Oliva retired in the first set.

Australian power server Mark Philippoussis got off to a flying start with a 7-5 6-4 6-3 victory over Christian Ruud of Norway.

On Monday, Andre Agassi shook off a mild case of opening night jitters to roll past 20-year-old Frenchman Sebast ien Gros jean 6-4 6-1 6-4.

"There were a lot of nerves going on out there, but it just felt great to be out there," said Agassi, the 1994 champion who has rebounded from a forgettable 1997 season to return as a legitimate title threat.

Two-time champion Monica Seles, dressed in basic black evening wear, tennis-style, had her hands full with Florencia Labat of Argentina before winning 7-6 6-2.

Martina Hingis regained some of her old confidence by routing Aleksandra Olsza of Poland 6-2 60 to launch her title defence.

World number one Pete Sampras began with a straight-sets romp past Marc Goellner of Germany and unseeded Todd Martin belted 23 aces past compatriot Jeff Tarango in a straight sets victory.

Croatian teenager Mirjana Lucic, who said she fled her home last month to get away from an abusive father, found refuge from her personal problems by defeating Dutchwoman Kristie Boogert 6-3 6-2.

Last week, Lucic (16), said her father and lifelong coach Marinko had physically and mentally terrorised her for 10 years.

Her father denied the charges in a letter published last week in a Zagreb newspaper.

The situation became unbearable, according to Lucic, at Wimbledon when her father struck her and her mother Anjelka.