Football: Rebuilt Rusedski on the rebound

Ronald Atkin finds the British No 2 planning a strong recovery
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GREG RUSEDSKI is possessed of a cheerfulness which can fairly be described as indestructible. Here he is, on the phone line from Boston about to play his first tournament after a five-week injury absence, but is he apprehensive or downcast? No chance.

Looking forward to it, raring to go. That sort of thing. But is the tendinitis in his right foot, which caused pain through the French Open and Wimbledon, now cured? "I'm about to find out," he chortled. "I'll let you know at the end of the week."

The 25-year-old left-hander has been particularly unlucky in the timing of his physical stresses for the past three years. In 1997, the early part of a richly promising season was interrupted by a wrist injury, though Rusedski bounced back to get to the final of the US Open and become the first British player to gain a ranking spot in the top 10. Last year another successful spell was brought to an untimely halt by damaged ankle ligaments just before Wimbledon, but he ended 1998 ranked ninth, the place he still holds.

The latest problem followed a toe infection suffered at the French Open which had to be treated by surgery. The tendinitis followed, at the junction of toe and foot, the one he pushes off on as he launches that mighty, world-record serve. The problem and the pain persisted through Wimbledon, though he made little mention of it, and he matched his best-ever performance at the French Open by getting to the All England Club's fourth round, too. Then he went to a clay court event in Gstaad, lost in the first round to the local idol Marc Rosset and decided the time had come for the problem to be addressed.

The treatment was done in London, so Rusedski was able to lessen the anxiety by being at home for an unexpectedly long spell. Being Greg, he found silver linings aplenty. "It was nice to be able to go out with friends, to sleep in my own bed, to get a break from the circuit."

With most of the leading men opting to take this week off before the US Open or nursing injuries, like Patrick Rafter (shoulder) or Pete Sampras, whose 24-match unbeaten run came to an end on Friday because of a thigh strain, Rusedski finds himself seeded No 1 and drawn to play his opener against a qualifier who will not be known until later today.

"I am hoping to get three or more matches under my belt this week," he said. "That would be a bonus because it is always a challenge going into a Grand Slam short of match practice, though it could prove a benefit."

It certainly could. Freshness, as long as it is harnessed to a rapid return to match toughness and top form, may be a valuable asset to carry into the cauldron of Flushing Meadow. Now is the time when many who have wheeled away year-long are a touch jaded or are carrying injury niggles.

"I am feeling positive about myself," he added. "I did a lot of work in the gym while I was away, it was a productive period. I am moving just as well now as I did before the injury, if not better, so the lay-off can prove a positive thing. It is just a question of getting back the edge of concentration on the big points. I think it will come back quickly but the only way is to test it. Nothing can make up for match play."

Rusedski's big regret is that he has missed a large part of the North American hard court season, one of the better surfaces for his rapid-fire game. Absence has not affected his ranking, however, because this was the time he was out of action 12 months ago. But it was Greg's late-season surge of good results which kept him inside the top 10 at the end of 1998 and he knows there is work to be done.

"I am going to have to play extremely well from now on. But right now I'm just looking at the US Open, trying to win a major title, the only thing I haven't done yet. That is what separates you from the rest, a Grand Slam title."

If only they awarded such things for cheerfulness and unquenchable optimism, Greg would be top of the heap.