Interview: Greg Rusedski - Greg's back and he's still smiling

Britain's No 1 heads for the US Open with a new coach and backhand, but the same relaxed outlook. Ronald Atkin reports
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Considering he is Britain's reigning Sports Personality of the Year, Greg Rusedski has been operating at sub-zero level lately. But, as he points out, there hasn't been a great deal to talk about as he worked on rehabilitating the ankle he wrecked in June and on rebuilding a career which had been so unexpectedly and painfully undermined.

But now, after three weeks of hard practice sessions with his new coach, the Dutchman Sven Groeneveld, and a summer of gym work with his fitness trainer, the former British international sprinter Steve Green, Rusedski was ready for a chat before he flew to the United States on Friday to make his comeback at the Indianapolis tournament this week.

As Rusedski, Groeneveld and Green came off the hard courts at Queen's Club the trainer smiled: "I've done my job now. I can put my feet up." The task for Groeneveld, whose appointment was only revealed last week, is far from over. He needs to cement the new working relationship and help to take the British No 1 forward after the double upset of injury and the resignation of his previous coach, Tony Pickard.

So far, according to Rusedski, he is doing just fine. "The last two weeks have been tremendous," he said, at ease with his feet up on a coffee table at the Lawn Tennis Association's Barons Court training headquarters. "He has done the best job on my backhand of any of my coaches so far." Ah yes, the backhand. Greg's thunderclap serve, the world's fastest, and his powerful, left-handed forehand have helped propel him as high as fourth in the world (he is at present sixth). With a backhand to match, Rusedski fancies his chances of getting to No 1.

"The backhand still isn't 100 per cent but it's a lot better. That doesn't mean I'll get to Indianapolis and, bang, it's going to be there. But it will be there a few times, which is nice."

Unlike the backhand, the left ankle is now 100 per cent again. The most painful thing about it is the memory of the incident, when he hurt himself in the first set of a third-round match at the Stella Artois championships, only a few yards from where we were talking.

"The grass was damp but my foot hit a dry patch and stuck. My knee went backwards, then my whole body went back and I heard a little bit of a snap in the ankle. It was excruciatingly painful for about five minutes and then it went numb."

Yet Rusedski opted to play Wimbledon less than a fortnight later, after first disappearing with his Iranian physiotherapist, Reza Daneshmand, reportedly to Turkey. It was the secrecy involved in this trip which persuaded Pickard, who had no idea where his player was, to terminate their relationship after Rusedski had conceded his first match at Wimbledon. "The trust had gone," was Pickard's terse explanation.

"That's all in the past now," is how Rusedski reacted when asked about the trip, mumbling: "It was just to get away and get myself prepared." That the Pickard split still bothers him, however, was clear when he added quietly, "Only two people know what happened and only one [Pickard] has talked about it. Only one point of view came out, so people were commenting without knowing the facts." He did not elaborate on what the facts were, preferring to pay tribute to Pickard for "all the things he has done for me".

Rusedski says he decided to play Wimbledon after talking to his doctor, his radiologist and Daneshmand. "The only way to answer the question of whether I was fit enough was to go out there. If I hadn't given it a go I might have been asking myself 'what if?' So it was good for me and I think the public appreciated that I gave it an effort. But maybe I stayed out there a little too long. Perhaps," he grinned, "I should have given up after winning the first set. But I had a scan afterwards to check if there was any more damage but it showed a little improvement, so I didn't do myself any harm by playing."

With no more tennis to play for a while, Rusedski had time to catch up on his mail. There were letters from people applying for the coaching vacancy and others from fans. None, he says, was critical of what he had done. The job applications were ignored in favour of letting his agents, ProServ, come up with a replacement. Their selection was Groeneveld, an ex-Bollettieri exployee who has coached Monica Seles, Michael Stich, Mary Pierce, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Mary Joe Fernandez. For the past year he has been head coach at the Swiss Tennis Federation's development programme. That job, said Groeneveld, "was too much administration; I prefer to be back on court."

Groeneveld will be the fifth coach in Rusedski's professional life. First there was the South African Keith Diepraam, then Scott Brooke from Florida, followed by the Californian and former Australian Open champion Brian Teacher, and then Pickard. All, he says, have helped move him forward.

"Brian took me to a certain level but to get to the next level I needed someone tactically stronger, like Tony. But then there were still technical weaknesses which hadn't been cleared up well enough."

After a 10-day trial period "to see how we got on with each other" Rusedski and Groeneveld are now a team. "Sven's qualifications speak for themselves," said Greg. "He is very hungry and it helps that he is more of my age so he can come on court and hit balls with me. Also, he lives in Knightsbridge, which is about 10 minutes from me. It should work out nicely."

Rusedski is also hopeful the comeback will work out nicely, though time is desperately short if he is to be match fit for the US Open, where his career highlight was to reach last year's final. After Indianapolis this week he has only one other event, Long Island, before heading for New York, where the tournament starts on Monday 31 August.

"I know I'm cutting it fine but sometimes when you're not expecting to do well you perform better. If I stay healthy and I'm playing good tennis I have as good a chance as anybody. My biggest problem will be lack of match toughness but I am a positive, optimistic person." He grins: "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."

Reduced to watching this year's Wimbledon final on television, Rusedski came up with two conclusions. First, Goran Ivanisevic threw away a glorious chance to become the champion. Second, Pete Sampras won it without playing well.

"Sampras hasn't hit that supreme level this year, which is another disappointing thing about the injury. If I could have kept on playing well through the grass court season I would still be in the race for No 1.

"I really felt I had a shot to attain that, but now I guess I'm going to have to put that on hold for next year."

Rusedski reports his serve, which was timed at 149mph in March, is in good shape - "not lacking power, speed or placement, but though it's nice to have the fastest serve in the world, at the end of the day it comes down to winning tournaments, especially Grand Slams, because that's what people remember you by.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back and winning some matches but I'm not thinking about the US Open yet, just getting through my first match.

"If I can do that, knowing I'm physically strong and my body will hold up, then everything will be fine."

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