Rusedski puts his mind to revenge

Simon O'Hagan talks to the player hoping to steal some Henman thunder
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Last year he was expected to win but didn't - this year he has more of a supporting role but still looks a good bet to come out on top. It's been a mixed 12 months for Greg Rusedski, but his recent form suggests that at this week's national tennis championships in Telford he could well make up for blowing the final in 1995.

Rusedski went into those championships still riding the wave of popular acclaim that had accompanied his arrival on the British scene six months previously when he announced that he was switching his allegiance from the country of his own birth - Canada - to that of his mother's. Ranked way ahead of anybody else at 43 in the world, he appeared to have no logical rival until along came Tim Henman, and the new golden boy of British tennis has been stealing Rusedski's thunder ever since.

It might have been different if Rusedski had managed to close out a final in which he won the first set 6-1 in only 19 minutes and was a break up in the second. But as Rusedski's game fell apart, Henman, who was still ranked outside the world's top 100, came back to take the title 1-6, 6- 3, 6-2 - one of a series of big wins towards the end of last year that launched him on the path that led to the heights of No 25 in the world last month.

Rusedski plays down the effects of that defeat - "I wasn't as mentally strong as I should have been and he took advantage" is his unconcerned explanation - but it undoubtedly marked a big shift in the balance of power between them, and that process accelerated in the months that followed as Henman surged towards the stratosphere and Rusedski got stuck at ground level.

Wimbledon was where the contrast looked starkest. Henman became a national hero by reaching the quarter-finals; Rusedski went out in the second round, and not even to anyone very notable, Brett Steven of New Zealand. He was ranked down in the 70s, dropping to 84 in September when a third-round defeat to Jason Stoltenberg of Australia in the Bournemouth clay-court tournament made him realise that something had to be done.

"I was dominating him," Rusedski recalled last week. "I won the first set 6-1, was playing very well and then just had a drop in concentration. So I decided to take some time out to work on the mental side of the game." Learning to relax while remaining alert, visualising winning points, playing positively on break points were all areas that needed attention, and in the last few weeks Rusedski has been a much better player as a result.

After Bournemouth and the Davis Cup match against Egypt, Rusedski reached the semi-finals in Singapore where he lost a tight match to Michael Chang, and the following week in Peking he won his first title of the year, and only his third in all, by beating Martin Damm of the Czech Republic.

The week after that brought him up against Henman in Ostrava for their only meeting since last year's nationals final. Rusedski's 7-6, 7-5 defeat now looks less significant than the fact that, since then, Henman has been knocked out of the first round for three tournaments running, while Rusedski goes to Telford on the back of a strong showing in Stockholm last week.

The rankings gap has narrowed, with Rusedski back into the 40s and Henman back down to around the 30 mark, making it the first time Britain has had two men in the top 50 since John Lloyd and Buster Mottram at the end of 1978. Henman admits he is tired after an exacting year; Rusedski reckons he is playing some of the best tennis of his life, hitting returns and a top-spin backhand that are worthy of his formidable serve. Either way it looks a two-horse race, and Rusedski is moving up fast on the outside.