Rusedski's patriot games

All England acclaims a new standard-bearer who carries the burden of his adopted nation's expectations; Simon O'Hagan follows the player who has galvanised the British game
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IT IS allegedly the solitary swallow that tricks us into thinking summer has arrived. This year, however, we are being led on by a Canada goose. But will Greg Rusedski take British tennis into a new climate of success, or is it destined to remain forever frozen in the wastes of perennial failure?

It has been a bizarre week for the domestic game, one in which no one could have failed to spot the irony of the only two Brits to reach the third round: Rusedski, lately arrived from Montreal, and Chris Wilkinson, who turned his back on the British tennis establishment in protest at his new compatriot's adoption.

Then there was Tim Henman - as impressive in defeat against Pete Sampras as he was in victory over Paul Wekesa, but even better remembered for succumbing to what suddenly seems a syndrome - that of the charming, good-looking young Englishman brought down by "a moment of madness". Maybe Henman and Hugh Grant should start a support group.

Beyond Rusedski, Wilkinson and Henman there was an underlying trend. This was something we are all much more familiar with: first-round defeats for six of the remaining seven Brits, only one of whom even managed to win a set.

Statistically, 1995 has been a slightly better than average year for the Brits at Wimbledon. Since the Open era began in 1968, they have played an average of 1.52 matches at each Wimbledon. The worst year was 1990, when seven entrants played only eight matches, an average of 1.14. The best year was 1993 when eight entrants played 15 matches for an average of 1.87. After Rusedski has played Sampras tomorrow the average will stand at 1.70 (10 entrants, 17 matches played), but the new British No 1 will have to reach the semi-finals if the 1993 record is to be beaten.

That is perhaps a rather harsh way of looking at it. After all, the value of a victory must increase exponentially the further into a tournament it occurs, and if Rusedski were to beat Sampras in the fourth round tomorrow, that result alone would be worth more to domestic tennis than the 139 victories British players have had at Wimbledon since 1968 put together.

As it is, Rusedski has galvanised the game in a way unimaginable before his arrival. Few players brought up in Britain play the way Rusedski does - with a confident physicality that is more than mere brute force, however much his profusion of aces puts him in the upper echelons of the power players.

It is not lack of talent that British players have been accused of so much as lack of nerve. So far Rusedski has passed his tests impressively. After all, in the second round he lost the first set to Guy Forget, and he did the same in the third round against Olivier Delaitre. For Rusedski, however, these setbacks concentrate the mind rather than unsettle it.

The doubts and fears we normally associate with home players do not seem to trouble Rusedski, who displays his mercifully uncomplicated outlook on life by going off to watch his aspiring actress girlfriend perform in Chekhov's Three Sisters and quite happily telling the press that he wasn't sure if he understood it.

Which brings us to Rusedski's PR battle, skilfully fought in the early stages, but showing signs of excess towards the end of the first week at Wimbledon. A smile as wide as Saskatchewan has been Rusedski's biggest selling point and the most visible sign of the joy he has taken in his new role as standard-bearer for British tennis and the rapturous response he has received from the British public.

The communication with the crowds and the lavishing of them with gifts from his kit-bag have seemed genuine gestures. He has been heartfelt and wholesome. And he has worked hard to say and to do all the right things. Sometimes, it has seemed he has been trying a little too hard, and if there is a note of caution to be sounded here it is that in the rush to please everybody Rusedski needs to make sure he does not lose sight of himself on the way.

It may sound churlish to point out that in his anxiety to impress upon the nation his knowledge of tennis history in general and British tennis history in particular when he gave his inaugural press conference at Queen's Club seven weeks ago, Rusedski did get one or two facts wrong. So might a native Brit, but Rusedski's approach was obviously the result of a learnedness that does not come naturally and, most important, learnedness that nobody would expect of him. Likewise, some of the on-court play-acting last week smacked of contrivance.

Was it so well advised to accept a Union Flag sweatband from the Sun? Anything that compromises his independence, particularly if it is the tabloid press laying a claim to him, would seem fraught with danger. What is appealing about Rusedski's relationship with his adoring new public is its spontaneity - most of the time anyway. Stage-management should not come into it.

For now, though, there is an air of optimism. David Lloyd, the newly appointed captain of Britain's Davis Cup team, emerged from the LTA's annual cocktail party to talk about his view of British fortunes in week one of Wimbledon. Had it not been rather bitter-sweet, with Rusedski's success offset by the "wrong" man - Wilkinson - also doing well, and Henman being disqualified from the doubles?

"Not really," Lloyd said. "You always get these quirks. On the whole it's been a very good week, especially with Henman winning his first match and performing well against Sampras. As for the incident with the ball- girl in the doubles, OK he shouldn't have done it, but it was an accident and he handled it very well. It's the sort of experience he could be stronger for."

Lloyd also singled out Ross Matheson, a first-round loser against David Wheaton, but able to look positively on the match having taken a set off the former Wimbledon semi-finalist and pushed him very hard. "It's not so much how far you get as who you play," Lloyd said, dismissing the efforts of Wilkinson because of what he saw as the poor quality of his opposition.

The Wilkinson business still rankles. "I feel sorry for him," Lloyd said. "But it was him who closed the door, not me. I just think in four or five years' time he might look back and regret giving up the chance to play for his country. But nobody is owed a living, and in any case it's not as if he would have been an automatic choice for the Davis Cup team anyway."

What then, of Rusedski? "He's done incredibly well. Because he's been under pressure too and he's shown how to handle it." But wasn't there a danger that he might be used to disguise still fundamental shortcomings in the British game?

"Every year at Wimbledon there's something we can hang our hat on," Lloyd said. "We've had it with Bailey and Bates and so on. But we need more pegs. It's more than one week. We've got to carry it through. But I think it's round the corner. I'm positive.

"The point about Greg's high profile is that is what's going to attract people to the game. That's the biggest problem with tennis in this country. Not enough people play tennis. It's still too much of a sport for the middle classes. That's what I like about the way Greg's related to people. He's cut through all that. And that's what we want." Wimbledon champ in the making, saviour of the nation, class warrior. Is there no end to this man?