Tennis: Pickard teaching Rusedski to convert his chances

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Pickard is back on the tennis circuit as coach to Greg Rusedski. He believes the British No 1 has left Tim Henman behind and is ready for another push towards the very top.

Tony Pickard's studious face used to be one of the few British features at the major championships. Stefan Edberg's invigorated former coach has returned with Greg Rusedski to spice a simmering international casserole.

Rivalry? What rivalry? "I think Rusedski's left Henman behind now," Tony Pickard asserted. "Well, he has for a year, that's for sure.''

Pickard has been Greg Rusedski's mentor for the best part of a month, initially by telephone, having answered the call following the dismissal of the American Brian Teacher, who in 16 months guided Rusedski up the rankings and into the final of the United States Open.

A week ago, with Pickard in attendance, Rusedski defeated Tim Henman in straight sets in the semi-finals of a Tour event in Vienna. It was the Canadian-born left-hander's first success in four matches against the 23-year-old from Oxford.

Rusedski is No 5 in the world, Henman No 19, and Pickard expects his charge to continue to pull rank, at least "until the US Open, when Greg's got to perform again''. He added, "He's got the whole of the year up to Wimbledon when he's defending nothing, so he's got a great chance to build a fantastic foundation for 1998 before 1998 is half-way gone.''

Having paused for breath, Pickard and Rusedski travel to Stuttgart today for next week's $2.3m (pounds 1.5m) Eurocard Open, in pursuit of points to secure a place in the eight-man ATP Tour Championship in Hannover. Henman is also due to play in Stuttgart.

"Nothing would be greater than if young Henman started to hit a few more balls into court and got in the top 10," Pickard said. "That would be simply fantastic for us.''

Use of the royal "we" is a Pickard idiosyncrasy from his long and successful association with Sweden's Stefan Edberg and his three-year stint as Britain's Davis Cup captain. "I got fed up with the politicking in the Davis Cup, because that's not my scene," the 63-year-old from Nottingham said.

Before his acrimonious split with the Lawn Tennis Association, Pickard brought Henman into the Davis Cup squad. Pickard's description of him, "the one bright shining light", was supposed to be off the record but quickly gained circulation.

"He was the only one we had," Pickard recalled. "Rusedski wasn't even here then, and Henman was the one that looked as though he had it. And, let's face it, up until just before the US Open Tim was still the one who was ranked No 1 in England. It's only this past four, five, six weeks that it's been turned. And it's a big leap. Now all that people can hope for here is that Rusedski stays where he is and Henman tries to get to him.''

Not that Pickard adheres to the conventional view of rivalry. "Competition is a great thing," he said, "but it is a very individualistic game and I don't really think either Rusedski or Henman think about one another when they go on the court to play a tennis match. I think they're thinking about their own performance and themselves winning. I don't think they're worried whether the other guy's winning or whether he's losing.

"The only time they look at one another possibly is when they play one another and when they look in a morning to see who's won and lost. I know everybody keeps writing this business about the competition between the two of them, but I think it's all hypothetical.''

Much of the credit for Rusedski's rise above Henman is due to Teacher, Pickard acknowledged. "Brian's obviously done a damn good job, and there's no taking that away from him," he said.

The Californian coaxed Rusedski to work so hard improving his groundstrokes last Christmas that Rusedski's hand blistered. Teacher then sustained Rusedski's confidence after a wrist injury interrupted a splendid week in San Jose in February during which he had defeated Michael Chang and Andre Agassi back-to-back in straight sets and taken the first set off Pete Sampras before retiring in the final.

Teacher says he was not exactly showered in praise. "After the final in San Jose," he recounted, "Tom Rusedski [Greg's father] said to me, `Hey, you are on first base'. Then, following the US Open, where Rusedski lost to Australia's Pat Rafter in the final, Teacher said he received another assessment. "Tom said I was still on first base with Greg's serve return and he was going to have to hire somebody to teach him to hit a return. There was also talk about me not being able to scout opponents.''

Finally, Teacher said, Rusedski telephoned him midway through the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, saying, "Thanks for the help, but I'm under no obligation after the Open.''

Pickard said he was taken by surprise when asked to step in. "Tennis has been in my blood for most of my life, but I wasn't looking to go back on the Tour. I've got nothing to prove to anybody. Rusedski approached me, impressed me with his ambition, and that's what swayed me to say, `Yes, OK, we'll give it a go for a year and see how it goes'. It certainly wasn't anything else that attracted me back.''

Rusedski's 143 mph serve is the fastest ever recorded on the ATP Tour, and coaching him must be akin to a mechanic fine-tuning Thrust. Rusedski may not have Rolls-Royce engines, but there is more to his game than raw power.

Frew McMillan, commentating on Eurosport, has compared Rusedski's backhand volley to the master strokes of John McEnroe, Tony Roche and Rod Laver. Teacher broadened Rusedski's groundstroke game, and Pickard's aim is to continue the all-round improvement in performance and strategy.

The latest ATP Tour statistics display Rusedski's name prominently in various categories of service game leaders. He has won more service games (92 per cent) than anybody else. He is second only to Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, in points won on his first serve and to Michael Chang, the great retriever, in winning points off his second serve. Only Goran Ivanisevic has saved more break points than Rusedski, who is third in the aces count (841) behind Ivanisevic (1024) and Krajicek (862).

In spite of a marked improvement in his service returns, however, Rusedski does not rate a mention among the return of serve leaders. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, has converted most break points (49 per cent).

"All the guys that were good enough to become No 1 in the world had that wonderful capability of converting chances," Pickard emphasised. "And that's basically what its all about, converting chances.

"All right, the younger guys that are coming on the block now, they're learning how to convert chances, and they're learning that it's not as easy to convert chances as it was when they were playing in the smaller Tour events and against the lower ranked players.

"If you play the top guys all the time, you need Sampras's experience. What's Sampras now, 26? Well, he's got two years longer stuck on his shoulders. So, OK, there's a period of time when the younger guys have got to learn how to convert. And the ones that start to convert first are the ones that are going to end up at the top of the ranking list. It's as simple as that.

"The state of the situation in the top 10 in the world right now is wide open - I mean, apart from Sampras it's wide open. Sampras is definitely above the other guys, but that doesn't mean he's going to stay there. It's terrific for the young guys, for all of them, not just for Greg. It's good for Rafter, it's good for the Spaniards, it's good for Henman. The door's open.''

Pickard is not planning to be back on the road every week, but intends to accompany Rusedski to the four Grand Slams and the top events on the ATP Tour. The man who knows all about slices and chips has not become a coach potato.

silver service: the statistics

Aces No Matches

1 Goran Ivanisevic 1024 67

2 Richard Krajicek 862 58

3 Greg Rusedski 841 62

4 Mark Philippoussis 828 60

5 Marc-Kevin Goellner 569 48

6 Alex Radulescu 512 49

7 Pete Sampras 510 48

8 Magnus Norman 491 59

9 Patrick Rafter 488 71

10 Tim Henman 486 59

Service games won P/cent Match

1 Greg Rusedski 92 62

2 Pete Sampras 91 48

3 Richard Krajicek 90 58

4 Goran Ivanisevic 88 67

5 Mark Philippoussis 87 60

6 Thomas Enqvist 85 46

7 Patrick Rafter 84 71

8 Brett Steven 84 38

9 Tim Henman 83 59

10 Magnus Larsson 83 54

2nd serve won P/cent Match

1 Michael Chang 54 68

2 Greg Rusedski 54 62

3 Marcelo Rios 53 69

4 Albert Costa 53 58

5 Thomas Muster 53 54

6 Pete Sampras 53 48

7 Guillaume Raoux 53 46

8 Vincent Spadea 53 41

9 Brett Steven 53 38

10= Jonas Bjorkman 52 71

Patrick Rafter 52 71

1st serve pts won P/cent Match

1 Richard Krajicek 86 58

2 Greg Rusedski 84 62

3 Goran Ivanisevic 83 67

4 Pete Sampras 82 48

5 Mark Philippoussis 81 60

6 Tim Henman 80 59

7 Marc-Kevin Goellner 80 48

8 Jonathan Stark 79 39

9 Alex Radulescu 78 49

10 Thomas Enqvist 78 46

Break pts saved P/cent Match

1 Goran Ivanisevic 71 67

2 Greg Rusedski 70 62

3 Thomas Muster 68 54

4 Brett Steven 68 38

5 Mark Philippoussis 67 60

6 Magnus Norman 66 59

7 RichardKrajicek 66 58

8 Jan Siemerink 66 38

9 Galo Blanco 66 32

10 Patrick Rafter 65 71

The statistics include every match played on the ATP Tour and Grand Slams. These are the standings as of 13 October, all the players having completed a minimum of 32 matches.