Rusedski instils fresh optimism

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A couple in the crowd encapsulated the mood of Britain's 5-0 victory against Monaco in the Davis Cup relegation play-off, which ended yesterday. Mary Thomson was wearing a Union Jack flat cap with "London" printed across it. Her husband, Ian, sported a white cap bearing the emblem of Tennis Canada.

The Thomsons recently returned from Toronto to retire in Sussex, after emigrating to Canada in their early twenties. Home being where the heart is, the 21-year-old Greg Rusedski has forsaken Montreal for Purley, where his girlfriend lives. His mother's Yorkshire birthright took care of the details.

"We'd heard about Greg in Canada," Ian Thomson said. "I don't have a strong opinion either way, but he seems to be good for British tennis. He's brought a winning attitude."

Spectator response to Rusedski has been the most revealing aspect of a fascinating train of events since the lofty left- hander's transfer to Britain a few weeks before Wimbledon. The crowds have taken to him from the outset, notwithstanding first-round defeats at Queen's Club and Nottingham, and he attained almost cult status in advancing to the fourth round at the All England Club. As David Lloyd, the new Davis Cup captain, said: "We're hungry for success - don't knock it."

With the exception of Chris Wilkinson, the British players have taken Lloyd's point, swallowed their resentment and accepted the situation, acknowledging that everybody will benefit if Rusedski continues to raise interest in the British game. The number of youngsters clamouring for his autograph was another encouraging feature of the weekend at Devonshire Park, where for once, the opposition were out of their depth.

Before Rusedski arrived with his 137mph serve, aces were perceived as the curse of grass-court tennis, the source of "boring" men's singles finals at Wimbledon. Each one of his boomers at Eastbourne was greeted with roars of delight and pleas of "Let's have another one, Greg".

The power of Rusedski's play, coupled with Lloyd's infectious enthusiasm, affords scope for optimism, halting a sequence of humiliating defeats and buying time for home-grown talent to develop.

The signs are promising. The gifted 20-year-old Tim Henman has avoided being thrust into the role of Jeremy Bates before he was prepared for it; Mark Petchey has rehabilitated himself as a valuable member of the squad; a fitter Neil Broad is a bonus as a doubles specialist.

Lloyd trusts that others will be inspired to become part of an upwardly mobile unit when the climb from Group Two of the Euro-Africa Zone gets under way next April, and that results continue to improve as the players return to the weekly routine of competing on the ATP Tour.

Rusedski's next challenge is to face his home crowd at next week's tournament in Montreal. "Obviously, I'll get a bit of stick, but hopefully I'll be able to handle it," he said. "I'm very pleased with the decision I made."

Tennis has its place in Canada's sporting culture, but the repercussions for Rusedski would be more serious were his name Wayne Gretzky and his best surface ice.

DAVIS CUP Euro-Africa Zone Second Division play-off (Eastbourne) Singles: G Rusedski bt C Boggetti 6-2 6-2 7-6; T Henman bt S Graeff 6-0 6-3 6-2; Rusedski bt Graeff 6-0 6-1; Henman bt Boggetti 6-1 6-4. Doubles: N Broad and M Petchey bt Graeff and Boggetti 6-4 6-0 7-6. Great Britain beat Monaco 5-0.