Tennis: Henman and Rusedski feel the strain of expectation

John Roberts on the growing pressures that face Britain's two world-class tennis players
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The Independent Online
WORD IS that the Coldstream Guards may be on the point of setting up home in Battersea power station. We trust, however, that Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski will remain perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, come hype or high water.

The second edition of "indoor tennis in the park" (in a smart temporary arena to be precise) gets under way today at the British Genius Site, which ought to a good omen. Henman and Rusedski, seeded No 2 and No 3 respectively, are drawn to meet in the semi-finals of the $815,000 (pounds 510,000) Guardian Direct Cup. They are also due to play doubles together, with the Davis Cup tie against the United States at Easter in mind.

Rusedski regrets that he was unable to keep an appointment with Henman yesterday in the final of the ATP Tour event in Rotterdam, but he ran into Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Australian Open champion, in the semi-finals and was outplayed by the Russian.

Still, losing 6-4, 6-2 after only 57 minutes to an opponent ranked No 2 in the world was a vast improvement on some of Rusedski's performances of late. Ditto Henman, who found Kafelnikov too hot in the final, which the Russian won, 6-2, 7-6.

At this point, it may be prudent for your correspondent to pause for thought...

Jean-Paul Loth, a former French Davis Cup captain turned television commentator, once ventured a suggestion to Britain's tennis reporters. "Don't be so hard on your players," he said, "you kill them."

That was in 1990, after Britain had been white-washed 5-0 in a World Group promotion play-off at Queen's Club, London, by a French team destined for glory. "It is so important to build confidence," Loth added, "not only for the players now, but for those behind."

It took nearly a decade for "those players behind" to materialise - or at least for the nation to be blessed with two. Rusedski's arrival from Canada and Henman's emergence from Oxford has brought a rare gloss to the British game, one so delicate, however, that the Frenchman's advice is worth repeating.

There is more than one way to skin a tennis player. In the past, scorn was heaped on a generation of Britons because they were never going to be good enough to mix it with the best in the world. Now the novelty of seeing two men rise to the top 10 and display the potential to win a Grand Slam title - perhaps even Wimbledon - has created the peril of suffocation by expectation.

David Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, recognises the danger, but is not unduly worried about the top two. "I think the better you get the more people are going to say: `Oh, bloody hell, they should have won that week,' " Lloyd said. "In a way, Tim and Greg have made a rod for their own back in being so good in a country that at the moment, to be quite honest, is not as good as it should be."

The lack of reinforcements troubles Lloyd. "You've got Tim and Greg, who are world class - but for how long? And after that? To be honest it is not a healthy picture at the moment, and we've got to put it right. We've got two great players, and we've got to be feeding off them, and at the moment we're not."

Before moving indoors to play on a fast carpet court in Rotterdam, Henman and Rusedski - particularly Rusedski - were finding it difficult to reproduce the impressive form that elevated both to a position among the elite last year and also restored Britain to the 16-strong World Group of the Davis Cup.

Henman did reach the final of his first tournament of the season, on a medium pace concrete court in Qatar, where he was defeated by an inspired German qualifier, Rainer Schuttler. But then came a major disappointment on the rubberised concrete at the Australian Open, where Henman lost in straight sets in the third round to the Swiss Marc Rosset, with the year's first Grand Slam wide open.

A trip to Dubai helped restore Henman's spirits. A first-round loser on his two previous visits, he advanced to the quarter-finals after a resilient performance against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman. Henman was subsequently defeated, 7-6, 7-5, by the French left-hander Jerome Golmard, who went on to halve his world ranking of No 61 by beating Carlos Moya, the French Open champion, in the semi-finals en route to winning the title.

Rusedski's astonishing capitulation in the second round in Dubai after leading his 30-year-old Spanish opponent, Francisco Clavet, by a set and 3-0 with two service breaks, compounded a worrying start to the year by the British No 2. Having worked hard on his physical fitness in preparation for the Australian Open - perhaps too hard, judging by his lacklustre performance when outplayed by Paul Goldstein, an America qualifier, in the second round - Rusedski went to Dubai early, and departed early.

A first-round win in straight sets against Sjeng Schalken, the Dutch No 2, contained several tentative games by Rusedski, when serving and also when receiving. He wore a support for his lower back ("just for comfort") and was experimenting with a new racket ("just trying it out").

In losing to Clavet, Rusedski had his famous serve broken seven times in nine attempts and delivered only two aces. And this when faced with a pile of world ranking points to defend, particularly next month in Indian Wells, California, where he was defeated in the final by Marcelo Rios last year, having delivered the fastest serve ever recorded on the ATP Tour (149 mph).

There was a strong temptation to dust off that old standby, "What's gone wrong with... ?"

"Tim and Greg are going to have ups and downs," Lloyd said. "They're going to have some bad weeks. It's going to happen. They're still learning their trade. We all have bad days. The thing that would worry me is if they came in for an after-match interview and said: `I couldn't really care less'. That's not the point. They're trying their butts off. They haven't lost their keenness. They're still confident.

"Overall this year I'm very confident they'll both be in the top 10, and higher than they are now. I think either could win a major - I think both could win a major. If you take the French Open [played on clay, the slowest surface] out of the equation, I wouldn't bet against them in any of the majors."

Jeremy Bates' baggage was never packed with such high expectations in all the years he toured the tennis circuit virtually as Britain's lone ranger. Bates had his moments, however. He become Britain's first winner of a men's tour event for 17 years at Seoul in 1994, he twice advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon, and he numbered John McEnroe and Boris Becker among his conquests in the latter stages of his career.

He only wishes his game had been propelled by a strong British rivalry like the one between Henman and Rusedski. "It would have helped me," Bates said. "I would much rather have been ranked 10 in Britain if I was ranked 50 in the world all my career."

Nowadays Bates's experience is harnessed to the elusive quest for a general improvement in standards as the Lawn Tennis Association's manager of men's national training.

Playing devil's advocate, I sought his reaction to Henman's and Rusedski's unspectacular start to the year. "I think you have to be careful in some senses in calling it unspectacular," Bates said. "Because they're both in the top 10, you expect them to win things every week.

"OK, I think the Australian Open was an opportunity, certainly, for Tim to do better than he did. He would agree with that as well. There's been a couple of opportunites he's had over the past couple of years where he has been the best player left in [a tournament], and maybe we've expected a bit more of him, and those opportunities have been missed. So that's probably where the disappointment stems from more than anything. But in terms of his overall start to the year, and his game, I think he's a far better player than he was this time last year.

"I think Greg has probably had a bit of a tougher start to the year, but he had some good wins in Rotterdam. I really think you have to keep it in perspective. They've only played three or four tournaments. Greg's been working on a lot of things in his game. He's also got engaged. I know he's had that on the back of his mind."

The new Donnay racket that Rusedski has been testing appears remarkably similar to the Wilson he wielded with such ferocity. The red, white and blue paintwork adds a patriotic touch, but, in a sport demanding a mental edge, it is possible that a change of weapon may exact a psychological toll, even if the feel and balance seem identical.

Leading players down all the years have been tempted to change rackets, in some cases to improve performance, in others to swell bank accounts, occasionally to accomplish both.

"Rocket" Rod Laver once tried an aluminium Chemard, but struggled for his customary lift-off until reaching for a disguised Dunlop. Boris Becker sported a new racket logo, but admitted that Estusa were producing the Puma frames fundamental to his game. Martina Navratilova temporarily forsook Yonex, convinced that she could only out-hit Steffi Graf if she obtained the Dunlop racket then used by the German. John McEnroe imagined he could put more power in his elbow by borrowing a couple of Head rackets from a practice partner, Goran Ivanisevic, on the eve of Wimbledon. A first- round defeat by Derrick Rostagno persuaded McEnroe otherwise, and he returned to the Dunlop with which he once dominated the game.

There was also the bizarre case of Rip van Borg, the player who did not change his racket in the face of a technological revolution. Almost a decade after retiring with five consecutive Wimbledon titles to his name, Bjorg Borg made an abortive comeback to the Tour, still using his old wooden Donnay. Apart from any shortcomings in terms of match fitness, this was akin to pitting a longbow against bazookas.

Rusedski, whatever else, is emphatically a bazooka man.

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