Tennis: Greg's very British coup

Fresh from Flushing Meadow, Rusedski has now conquered the British heartlands. Andrew Baker reports
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According to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the most useful item for those travelling in space is a really good towel, and a definition of a wise and well-organised type is "One who really knows where his towel is". On this basis we may conclude that Greg Rusedski would feel perfectly at home on a starship. For a while he may bear only a passing resemblance to Adams's hero, Zaphod Beeblebrox (just the one head, for a start), Rusedski always knows where his towel is.

No one watching him in the Samsung Open at Bourne-mouth can have missed the routine. At the start of every game, the lanky ex-Canadian - sorry, the strapping British hero - hands a towel and a racket adjusting implement to a ball-boy. Between each point, he requests the towel and/or the implement, and sometimes a ball.

You can measure Rusedski's state of mind by the manner of the request. If he says "Towel, please", things are going well. If he grunts "Towel", they are not, and if he merely glares in the towel's direction he is probably break point down, or otherwise at breaking point.

All of this is a recipe for confusion for ball-boys, and it can only be a matter of time before Rusedski gets mixed up as well. One day he will mop his brow with the racket-adjuster, adjust his strings with the ball and serve a towel at 143mph. It will probably be an ace.

For that is the kind of form that the US Open finalist is in these days: the serve is record-breakingly awesome, but now the ground strokes and volleys are catching up, and he oozes the confidence that comes with a place in the world's top ten. Defeat yesterday by the Spanish clay court star Carlos Moya was a loss to a peer, not a superior.

Rusedski walked on court for his first-round match on Wednesday to a standing ovation. An hour and a half later he would walk off to another one. In between: three sets, 10 aces, a cake, some community singing and the least threatening court invasion in tennis history. It was a frightfully British homecoming, and no one will have appreciated its frightfulness and its charm more than the guest of honour.

"It was brilliant to get a standing ovation," Rusedski said after a brief towel-down in the locker-room. "And it was brilliant to have the people sing 'Happy Birthday' to me because I didn't have much of a birthday celebration on the sixth."

Rusedski's 24th birthday celebrations had been put on hold because he was busy beating Jonas Bjorkman for a place in the final of the US Open, becoming the first Briton since Fred Perry in 1936 to advance so far. Pat Rafter got the better of him in last Sunday's final, but by the time Rusedski climbed wearily on to Concorde to fly home on Monday he was pounds 225,000 richer, ranked No 11 in the world, and a very happy man.

His speed barely decreased once the jet came to a halt. "I got in about 10.30 on Monday night," he recalled, "and went straight to my girlfriend Lucy's parents' place. We stayed up until about 2am, then I got up at eight the next morning, drove to my flat in Chelsea, played back 36 messages from the answer machine, grabbed my stuff and headed down to Bournemouth. It's just your normal non-hectic schedule, but hey, I've been away for seven weeks, so I'm just really pleased to be at home."

Not that he was short of cheerleaders in Flushing Meadow. "I had great support out there," Rusedski recalled. "My parents came down, Lucy's parents were there, I had Brian [Teacher, his coach], my doctor and a really good crowd."

The doctor made himself useful, treating the bacterial infection that dogged the player through the closing stages of the tournament and still clogged his voice in Bournemouth. But, he insisted, it had not been a problem on court. "I wasn't 100 per cent, but once you step on court there are no excuses."

And there were no excuses to be made on his return, although after such an exhausting and elating schedule many players would have jumped at the chance of putting their feet up for a while. "I always had a commitment to play in Bournemouth," Rusedski said. "Whatever happened and however bad I felt. There are so few tournaments in Britain that I feel I want to play them all."

Would that Tim Henman felt the same way. While Rusedski got on with the job of adapting from the hard courts of New York to Bournemouth's clay - not his favourite surface - Henman had gone to great lengths to avoid a home appearance. To Tashkent, in fact, where he was playing in the President's Cup on hard courts. The official line was that Henman, like Rusedski, disliked playing on clay. But to many in Bournemouth, Uzbekistan seemed an awfully long way to go to avoid having to slide into your shots.

One result of Henman's travel plans was an exchange of position with Rusedski in terms of public popularity to match their swapping of status as Top Brit. The Henmagic stand has become a fixture at British tournaments, trading in souvenirs celebrating the achievements of Oxford's finest. But in Bournemouth the overwhelming demand was for their new line, imaginatively entitled Gregmagic. "Let's put it this way," the young lady stacking colour photographs said, "people aren't very fond of Tim at the moment."

But they are certainly fond of Greg, who has come through a barrier that may prove more significant than any number of ranking points: he has broken into British hearts, which previously belonged to Henman. This was demonstrated by the breach of security in mid-match.

Rusedski had wrapped up the first set, and was communing with his towel when something stirred behind him. Stewards swooped to intercept, but were too late to stop the interloper, an elderly lady clutching a zimmer frame, a birthday card and a gift, from reaching her target, who smilingly accepted her offerings and then got on with the match. It may have been slow, as spontaneous gestures go, but the affection was unmistakeable.

Rusedski recalled the exchange fondly after the match, before moving on to sign autographs for endless waves of young fans. On court, he had done justice to his lofty world ranking, scrapping for points when his serve let him down, and always willing to drag a further effort out of his weary limbs. But off court, for hours after the match had ended, he lingered, doing justice to his other ranking, that of British No 1.

All sports stars do the public relations thing, and tennis players are better at it than most. But Rusedski's performance with the pen on Wednesday was far beyond the call of duty, and in its way more impressive than his performance on court. "I could do with a few days in bed," he admitted at one point. Not, yet, Greg: keep signing, keep smiling.