Tennis: A turn for the better - Greg Rusedski - Speed the key for court ace

Milestones of '97: From the big server with a big future to the uneasy rider who nearly fell to earth
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The Independent Online
Greg Rusedski began the year with a world ranking of 48, a big serve and a broad smile. He ended it as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and a ranking alongside the Spice Girls as an attraction on Live and Kicking. It was just a shame no one could get his name right. Peter O'Sullevan managed the Greg bit fine, but lost his "s's" and "d's" in the photo finish at the BBC awards ceremony. So Rusedski became Rudetski. Close enough, I suppose. If the man wins Wimbledon next summer, we will have to be word perfect.

Simple statistics tell only half the story of Rusedski's year: two ATP tour titles, at Nottingham (albeit indoors) and Basle, a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon and two months later, at the new Flushing Meadow in New York, the first British grand slam finalist for 20 years, a historic moment which heralded a consistent run into the world top five and a place in the prestigious end- of-term moneyfest at the ATP Championship final in Hannover.

A year-end ranking of six comfortably eclipsed Tim Henman and instantly qualified the left-hander for the role of national idol previously the exclusive reserve of the former British number one. Whatever the tennis authorities decreed, 1997 was the year Greg Rusedski cast away his Canadian ancestry and was welcomed on to the warm hearth of British tennis.

Glimpses of the future could be found in San Jose last February. Not only did Rusedski speed to the final, disposing of Andre Agassi along the way, he was in the process of matching Pete Sampras stroke for stroke when forced to retire through injury. A shell-shocked world number one said that no one had ever played better tennis against him, praise which marked Rusedski's graduation from big server to all-court pretender.

The word was out. Somewhere between December 1996 and the start of the new season, Rusedski had learnt what to do when the fastest service on the tour was returned with interest and added a repertoire of service returns to his stock stash of aces.

Much of the credit for the technical progress was rightly given to Brian Teacher. So it came as a surprise that Rusedski's defeat by Pat Rafter in the final of the US Open prefaced a sudden divorce from his American coach. The change said much about Rusedski's restless ambitions. Having just touched the high point of his career, and established himself as a worthy contender for grand slam titles, he was not about to bask in the glory. Teacher lost his pupil and Rusedski turned instead to that wily old bird of British tennis, Tony Pickard, whose long- standing connections with the game had in effect ended with the retirement of Stefan Edberg the year before. It was a smart move. Never one to mince his words, Pickard took one look at his new charge and banished any sense of complacency.

"I told him he wasn't fit enough or quick enough," Pickard said. "Those are areas we've been working on dramatically." Pickard, as he would admit himself, is not a technical coach. He did not teach Edberg how to serve or hit his backhand, but as a motivator, psychologist, mentor and tactician, there are few better. "What I like about Greg is that he listens," Pickard said. "He's taken all the criticism and worked unbelievably hard without any hint of negativity. He's improved a good 15 per cent since I started with him. It's not just me. Brian Teacher did a fantastic job. He changed the situation whereby he could hit the ball over the net but had problems when someone hit the ball back to him. We've added to his vocabulary of shots, but it's one thing to do it in practice, another to do it consistently in matches."

Rusedski himself rarely dwells on the past. At Wimbledon, the euphoria of reaching the quarter-final was always tempered with caution; a series of poor results, injury and loss of confidence can equally erase the memories of an annus mirabilis.

Just ask Tim Henman, who found the plateau after a steep climb through the early months of the year. But he has enjoyed the celebrity which has accompanied his success and done some solid groundwork on his public image as well as his game in the all too brief close season.

1998 will be a year of consolidation, of defending ranking points and staying in the top 10, though the green grass of Wimbledon is the ideal home for his explosive power. At the age of 24, time is on his side. "We have to be realistic," Pickard said. "The aim is to keep competing with the top guys day in, day out. If he can use 60 per cent of what he does in practice, he's going to be OK. In the end, it's no good being number six in the world, is it?" Rusedski would have settled for such exalted heights this time last year.