Rusedski on course to get back to his roots

John Roberts talks to a tennis player who may improve Britain's world status
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The Independent Online
For a player whose serve has been timed at 137mph, a record for the ATP Tour, Greg Rusedski doesn't half procrastinate. If the Lawn Tennis Association had to wait as long for its annual donation from Wimbledon as it has wondered if Rusedski would renounce Canada in favour of Britain, the national governing body would be skeletal.

Unable to produce talent of its own, the LTA had a choice of kidnapping the Edberg baby (Emilie, aged 20 months, daughter of the Swedish former Wimbledon champion and a London resident) or of welcoming Rusedski, who was born and raised in Montreal but who has a Yorkshire mother and a British passport.

Rusedski, who speaks warmly of the mother country, seemed the better option; the more so after Jeremy Bates, the British No 1, announced his retirement from the Davis Cup team shortly before David Lloyd became the captain-elect in January.

After simmering for more than a year, the Rusedski affair was virtually forgotten until last month, when there was an indication that the player was preparing to travel with GB plates.

Rusedksi repaid a loan he had received from Tennis Canada's development fund. The fund's purpose is to help outstanding prospects make the transition from the junior game to the open ranks. The players do not have to repay the loan other than through their participation in the national team, the men in the Davis Cup and the women in the Federation Cup. Rusedksi has so far declined to play for Canada in the Davis Cup.

The LTA, keen to cover its embarrassment with a maple leaf, cannot approach the International Tennis Federation to ratify Rusdedski's eligibility until he makes personal contact with Barons Court and confirms his intentions.

Though a regular visitor to the LTA's practice courts in London - at 6ft 3in, the 21-year-old left-hander who singes service boxes is not a difficult fellow to spot - Rusedski has yet to make an official application.

"I should be making a decision pretty soon," he promises, the accent unmistakably trans-atlantic. "I will definitely make it before Queen's and Wimbledon [in June], whichever way I'm going to go."

But will he turn to Britain? "I would like to in the future, but right now I have other things to take care of and things to do, so at the moment I'm just leaving things on hold. I've just left it to other individuals right now. I haven't been getting too much involved in it too much, to be quite honest."

Why the delay? "That's a tough question, actually. I just have to take care of a few things, get a few things done, settle a few issues, then after that go from there. It's really up in the air.''

If Rusedski does back Britain, the ITF will decide how long he must wait before being allowed to play for the Davis Cup team. It could be one year, or three years, depending on how the world governing body views his residential qualification. "For the last three years I've spent a good two to three months every year in London," he said.

The Canadians, sensitive about fishing in international waters, are keeping vigil. "We're still very interested in having Greg represent Canada," said Robert Bettauer, the general manager of the Canadian Davis Cup team and director of development.

Bettauer described as "completely inaccurate" reports that Rusedski has repaid a six-figure sum. "It certainly wasn't anywhere remotely close to six figures," he said.

"The repayment of the loan can be construed in a number of ways. Greg may have felt that he hadn't fulfilled that part of the obligation with respect to playing for Canada, whereas all the other individuals who had received money had played several times for the country. So he may have felt that until this thing is solved he didn't want it hanging over his head."

From the outset, suspicions were raised that the Rusedskis were attracted by the LTA's Wimbledon millions. Tom Rusedksi, who is of Polish-Ukrainian extraction, was prepared to remortgage his house in order to subsidise his son's early development.

"We are aware," Bettauer said, "that the LTA has said, `Look, if you meet the criteria and you want to play for us we'll welcome you with open arms'. We are not aware of any overt overtures or contracts or money put on the table to the Rusedskis, and I think that the decision is one that Greg is trying to make in terms of where he wants to live his life and who he wants to play for, and finances are part of that."

The LTA is adamant that financial inducements have not been offered, and Rusedski insists that his choice will not be motivated by money."It would basically be a personal decision," he said, "not financial."

So why would he want to attach himself to a nation of tennis losers? "I love England. I love the country and I've had my girlfriend there for the last four years, and I spend most of my free time in London when I have a chance."

A modicum of success under Britain's banner would do no harm to Rusedksi's marketability, though he has yet to make an impact at Wimbledon. He lost a close first-round contest against Stefan Edberg in 1993 and to Christian Bergstrom, another Swede, in the second round last year. Ranked No 77 in the world, 10 places below Bates, Rusedski has been has high as No 41.

He appears to have a good rapport with the British players - he is a year to the day older than Tim Henman, the nation's brightest prospect - and if his game develops beyond the single dimension of a booming serve, the interest may help persuade more young people here to participate. "Most contries have a similar problem," Rusedski reasons. "You look at England. Football and cricket and rugby are the top sports, and most of the kids growing up are wanting to become the next Ian Wright or something.

"The LTA's doing the best they can. They're trying all sorts of options. They have their new programme and new facilities, and maybe it's just a matter of time. In Germany, tennis wasn't as popular until Becker came along, and now they have numerous guys in the top 50."

Not everybody would wish to be part of a welcoming committee, some taking the view that the nation's tennis should stand or fall by its own resources. "Yeah, that's understandable," Rusedski said. "It just depends on the opinion of the public."

There have been sufficient precedents in a variety of sports, although the most recent tennis imports, the South African-born Neil Broad and the American-born Monique Javer, scarcely achieved enough to be noticed.

Rusedski seems the type who readily makes himself at home. Alan Mills, the Wimbledon referee, recounts how, three years ago, Rusedksi all but camped in his downstairs office for three days, hoping to qualify for the singles tournament as a lucky loser. He did not get to play, but the women in the office were so charmed by his pleasant personality that they made a him a competitor's name card for a souvenir.

What are the odds of his returning as G Rusedski, GB? "That would be letting the cat out of the bag, wouldn't it?" Not the cat, please; we need a lion.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, No 1 and No 2 in the world, both beat accomplished opponents to reach the final of the Newsweek Champions Cup in Indian Wells, California. Sampras, the world No 1 and top seed, defeated Stefan Edberg, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in his semi-final. Agassi was hard- pressed in his match, but came through to continue his domination of the No 3 seed, Boris Becker, beating the German for the eighth consecutive time, 6-4, 7-6 in a 91-minute baseline duel. "There'll be fireworks," Agassi said. "Pete and I are forming a true rivalry." Sampras will retain his ranking whoever wins the final.

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