Rusedski plans grand entrance

Tennis
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The Independent Online
The Americans are slowly coming round to the notion that Greg Rusedski might take their men's singles title over to Britain. A Californian colleague, Joel Drucker, has gone so far as to put the prospect in a historical context. "Last time one of your guys won a major," he said, "Neville Chamberlain thought Hitler was a rational fellow."

Appraisals of Rusedski - who meets Jonas Bjorkman here today for a place in the US Open final - tend to incorporate a reminder that he was, of course, born and raised in Montreal. This is meant to make him appear an unlikely successor to the great Fred Perry, who was born in Stockport and took American citizenship long after his last hurrah at Wimbledon in 1936.

Rusedski's mother was born in Yorkshire, and he held a British passport when welcomed aboard by the Lawn Tennis Association in 1995. He also has an English girlfriend, Lucy Connor, and has since adopted Arsenal and appeared in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.

By advancing to today's semi-finals, Rusedski equalled Mike Sangster's progress at Forest Hills in 1961. The big server from Torquay was defeated by Rod Laver, which was something of a privilege. John Lloyd was the last Briton to contest a Grand Slam men's singles final, losing to Vitas Gerulaitis at the 1977 Australian Open.

Bjorkman, a Swede who has done well enough to live in Monte Carlo, plays Rusedski for the right to be tomorrow's unseeded finalist against either Michael Chang (No 2) or Pat Rafter (No 13). Aside from being a fine player, Bjorkman is a locker-room mimic; tennis's answer to John Virgo. He has mastered Rusedski's pass-the-towel routine but has yet to serve at 142mph.

His speciality is the return of serve, and he has beaten Rusedski in four of their five matches, most recently on a concrete court at the Lipton Championships at Key Biscayne last year. "Jonas is probably returning better than anybody in the world right now," Rusedski said. "He's in the Agassi class in that respect. He's got a lot of bounce and energy."

In a further attempt to edge the pressure into Bjorkman's court, Rusedski said: "I think I'll be more relaxed because he's higher ranked [No 17] and will be the favourite on paper. He's the one they call the hottest player in the world at the moment."

No player has been hotter than Rusedski here. Yet to drop a set, he has caused jaws to drop at the dimension of his game in defeating David Wheaton, Marcus Ondruska, Jens Knippschild, Daniel Vacek and Richard Krajicek.

"Greg doesn't have to serve at 142 mph," his coach Brian Teacher said. "I've told him to mix it up. He's just as tough then. I thought he did that very well in the wind against Krajicek."

While not underestimating Bjorkman's ability to mix it with the best, Teacher has noted one or two flaws. "I've seen him falter at times in matches," he said. "But all players go a bit off in matches. Greg does that sometimes. This is the best I've seen Greg, mentally."

Bjorkman, while expecting to face the familiar Rusedski he knows and respects - "big lefty serve, playing serve and volley, still really aggressive", acknowledged that his opponent has successfully developed a plan B.

"If his serve is not working that good, he doesn't have to be afraid of staying back because he's been improving his game from the baseline," the Swede said.

Rusedski considers that his attitude has improved along with his strokes in the two months since his defeat by the Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, at Wimbledon. "I was extremely disappointed in myself losing in the quarter- finals," he said. "I think I was physically and mentally exhausted. I didn't know how to handle the situation.

"I learned it doesn't matter how fatigued you are out there, you have to try to be fresh and have to be hungry to win every point. There's no excuses because nobody remembers who lost in the quarter-finals; they usually only remember who wins or keeps on going."

At least at Wimbledon he could count on the majority of spectators being on his side. What about the New Yorkers? "You never know," he said, having finally experienced what it is like to play more than one singles match after three fruitless visits to Flushing Meadow. "We'll have to see how it goes on the day. I think they just enjoy watching a good match."

If he goes all the way to glory tomorrow, how did he think his life would change? "Lucy is a positive influence," he replied. "No matter how many matches I win, Lucy makes sure I stay the same old Greg. But if my ranking ever slipped, I know I'd be able to get more wild-cards."

US Open semi-final head-to-head

Greg Rusedski (GB) v Jonas Bjorkman (Swe)

Bjorkman leads 4-1

1994 Tokyo hard R32 Bjorkman 7-5, 4-6, 7-6

1995 Hong Kong hard R16 Bjorkman 7-5, 6-4

1995 Toulouse carpet R32 Bjorkman 3-6, 7-6, 6-2

1995 Essen carpet R64 Rusedski 3-6, 7-6, 6-4

1996 Key Biscayne hard R64 Bjorkman 6-4, 7-6

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