Return of the instant hero

close-up; The man who seduced the Wimbledon public is facing his first British national championships. Simon O'Hagan met him
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The Independent Online
THERE is a tennis club in Montreal where the members know all about the mighty Rusedski serve and they are still trying to cope with it to this day. But it is Bill Rusedski's serve which is hurtling towards them. According to his brother Greg, it was even bigger than his own when the pair were growing up.

Greg Rusedski, three years Bill's junior, last week recalled how they used to practise together as teenagers. "I was very competitive and didn't like to lose. I had more of the McEnroe temperament. I was known to crack a few rackets. I had more talent than my brother, but he was very bright, and he used to get me upset with a few dodgy calls."

At 22, the face Rusedski now presents to the world is so radiantly good- humoured, so utterly unlike McEnroe's in its grinning wholesomeness, that it is hard to believe it was ever tainted with even the merest trace of displeasure. Of the images thrown up by this year's Wimbledon, perhaps the most enduring is that of an exultant Rusedski, the Canadian turned Brit, working his new compatriots into a frenzy of Union Jack-waving excitement that even Virginia Wade might have envied. "I enjoyed Wimbledon," Rusedski said. "The public were great, and I really had the feeling that I could go out there and actually win the event."

For the four months since then, Rusedski has, for the most part, been able to return to the relatively anonymous world of the globe-trotting Tour player in which tennis is the only nationality. His performances - from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and Bordeaux to Ostrava - have have meant little to many of those for whom he was such an intense focus of attention during that heady fortnight of high summer.

This week, however, Rusedski will be very much back to being a Brit when he takes part in his first national championships in Telford. He should win. As the British No1, the gap between him and the rest has been growing steadily. At 43 in the world, Rusedski is 72 places higher than the domestic No2, the ageing Jeremy Bates, and 91 ahead of the next best man at Telford, the fourth-ranked Tim Henman. Britain's No3 player, Chris Wilkinson, is not taking part in the nationals, which will disappoint those who would have enjoyed seeing a showdown between Rusedski and the man who was so put out by his switch of nationality that he announced he would never play in the Davis Cup for Britain again.

But if everything points to Rusedski's smiling and charming his way to more success, there are perhaps aspects of his youthful self he has not quite been able to shake off. Rusedski's power is not in doubt - but just as his big brother Bill spotted a temperamental weakness he was able to exploit, so the suspicion still lingers. Is Rusedski smart enough to make it to the very top?

When we met last Thursday, Rusedski was getting over the disappointment of his defeat in Essen the previous day at the hands of another big server, the Swiss Marc Rosset. "He had three break points and took two of them," Rusedski said. "I had five break points and took zero. That's the difference between being a good player in the top 50 and a great player in the top 10."

So where had Rusedski gone wrong? He cited a break point when Rosset, having won the first set, was serving at 1-2 in the second. "It was a second serve, short in the court. I chipped it slowly and put it in the net. Now that was a bad mental mistake. When you get a break point second serve in the middle of the court you should step in, drive the ball hard down the middle of the court and get the passing shot. Then the momentum changes."

Something similar happened in the next game, with Rusedski serving at 2-2 and 15-30. "He mis-hit a backhand return cross-court. It was not an easy forehand for me, but a forehand I should have made. I went for a little bit too much on the shot and missed it long by an inch when I should have played it a little more steady. So instead of it being 30- all, it was 15-40 and he got a break at 30-40. There are points like that where playing more of a percentage game would get me into the top 20."

Unfortunately, a percentage game doesn't come naturally to Rusedski. "I have to force myself," he said. "There are certain areas I tend to rush too much." David Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, believes Rusedski's inconsistency is the result of having so big a serve that it infects the rest of his game with too much physicality.

"You look at his tournaments and think how did he win that match and then lose that one," Lloyd said. "I think he is going to be like that. He is going to be very in and out. But he is still young and that will happen for a while." In trying to reduce his errors, Rusedski has just teamed up with Warren Jacques, the former British Davis Cup captain.

Rusedski's 1995 record offers support to those cynics who say that just being British is enough to ruin your game. Of his 33 matches before the day in May when Rusedski adopted his new nationality, he had won 23 and lost 10 - he won his only title of the year so far in Seoul. Since May, Rusedski has played 27 matches, winning 13 and losing 14, and after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon got no further than the second round in any of his next six tournaments.

They included an infamous appearance at the Canadian Open in his native Montreal when Rusedski braved the wrath of the locals before being knocked out in the first round. "You had to take it in your stride," he said. "I feel bad to a certain extent about how people reacted to me, but I don't think they had all the information about what was going on."

Because of the way the ranking system works, with points counting for a year after they are won, Rusedski was able to claim his highest ever position of 35 a fortnight ago. That meant he has bettered his target for the year of entering the world top 40. He is a great one for setting himself goals, writing down lists of the more attainable targets on one sheet of paper, the less attainable on the sheet underneath. Is that perhaps more the "real" Rusedski - solid and dedicated - than the Wimbledon Pied Piper whose crowd-pleasing sometimes smacked of contrivance?

David Lloyd says he thinks Rusedski was genuine in the way he embraced the British cause, but that he "wanted to make sure people knew he wasn't just going to come over, play his matches and then disappear". Rusedski said: "I enjoy performing, being with the public, giving back as much as I can. To make tennis more popular you have to have someone kids can look up to. Talk to someone who doesn't know much about tennis and they'll still know Andre Agassi. There's a character that interests people."

So what about Greg Rusedski? What does that name mean to people? "I wouldn't have a clue to be quite honest," he said. "I'd hope they'd think of me on the court enjoying myself, very competitive, wanting to win, always giving the best I possibly can. And hopefully think of me as a good person."

British No1s in the open era

Roger Taylor - 1968, 71, 73, 74: Finest hour was beating the defending champion Rod Laver at 1970 Wimbledon. Semi-finalist in boycott year of 1973. Went on to run tennis centre in Spain.

Mark Cox - 1969, 70, 72, 75, 76 (jointly with Buster Mottram), 77: First amateur to beat a pro - Pancho Gonzalez in 1968. Now a broadcaster and head of Rover Junior Tennis Initiative.

Buster Mottram - 1976 (jointly with Mark Cox) 78-83: Last home player to be seeded at Wimbledon - No 15 in 1982, when he reached the fourth round, a career best. Now a coach and journalist.

Colin Dowdeswell - 1984: 1975 Wimbledon men's doubles runner-up. Helped set up Association of Tennis Professionals' office. Works in banking.

John Lloyd - 1985, 86: Gifted stylist who married Chris Evert. Runner- up to Vitas Gerulaitis in the second of 1977's two Australian Opens. Twice winner of Wimbledon mixed doubles with Wendy Turnbull. Now lives in California. Coaches British Davis Cup team.

Andrew Castle - 1987: Famously took No 2 seed Mats Wilander to five sets at 1988 Wimbledon. Now a broadcaster.

Jeremy Bates - 1988-94: Twice reached fourth round at Wimbledon, in '92 and '94. At 33, still active, but has retired from Davis Cup competition and has said next Wimbledon will be his last.