Tennis: No 1 target for Henman and Rusedski

Tennis: Britain's talented twosome are showing a hunger for success that puts their peers in other sports to shame
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a moment during the festive season when Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski wished each other well without the prompting of cameras or microphones.

The tennis writers' annual awards dinner and dance at the All England Club was nearing its conclusion when Rusedski and his girlfriend, Lucy Connor, made their way to the crowded dance floor and exchanged pleasantries with Henman and his girlfriend, Lucy Heald.

Any officials of the Lawn Tennis Association privy to the interlude would probably have chimed in with, "And a happy and prosperous new year".

Henman and Rusedski, the British No 1 and No 2 respectively, both end 1998 ranked in the ATP Tour's world top 10, a first for which the LTA must be truly thankful. But with nothing to boast about beyond Henman and Rusedski, the weight of expectation on the pair increases. It has not become a burden only because the players wish for themselves what others wish for them.

"I'm very excited about next year," Henman, the world No 7, says. "I think if I continue the progress I've made in the last five or six months, the quarter-finals of a [Grand] Slam is not what I'm going to be looking for. I'm going to be getting to the finals and winning them."

Rusedski, the world No 9, has similar goals. "I've been to four in the world," he says. "I'd like to get in that area where it's three, two or one, and to try to win at a Grand Slam level. I've gotten to the finals [at the 1997 United States Open], but I've never taken the next step of winning one. Those are my objectives for next year."

The Canadian-born Rusedski was sent to Coventry the other day, the reason for the visit providing further evidence of his integration as a British competitor. Jaguar Cars announced that Rusedski had joined their world- wide marketing campaign, and them waved him off in a brand new XK8 convertible. Henman, who numbers Mercedes Benz among his sponsors, recently collected a new C43 and decided to buy the SLK he had been driving.

In the case of most leading tennis players, endorsements and advertising deals for all manner of goods, including tennis clothing and equipment, are estimated to be worth up to four or five times what they earn in prize- money. The 25-year-old Rusedski's career winnings total $4,098,251 (pounds 2,561,406). Henman, aged 24, has won $3,277,128 (pounds 2,048,205).

Success quickly provides financial security, but the quest for titles seldom is satisfied, and pride in performance usually takes care of motivation.

"Looking back over the year, there have been some amazing lows and some amazing highs," Henman says. "I think to finish No 7 is a good year. Then, when you look at it in a little bit more detail, you realise the short periods that I've played good tennis. It's basically been half the year.

"In the last six months, I've really established myself in the top 10. The feeling inside me is that's not good enough. I've got to go to the next level.

"I'm going to be close to the top five, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future. [Pete] Sampras still stands out. I think I've beaten virtually everybody else. Hopefully I can beat him next year. There's no reason why I can't go right to the very top. Whether it happens next year or the year after, that's what I want."

An ankle injury deprived Rusedski of two months of the season, wrecking his Wimbledon prospects and leading to a parting from his coach, Tony Pickard. Rusedski, a resilient character, was able to raise his game again, helped by a new coach, the Dutchman Sven Groeneveld.

"I think I just have to get the consistency to play at the top level all the time," Rusedski says, "improving the returns, improving the ground game, becoming more of an all-court player."

Whatever Henman and Rusedski accomplish in the meantime, rivalry will be set aside during the Easter weekend (2 to 4 April) for a major team effort against the United States in the first round of the Davis Cup at Birmgham's National Indoor Arena (60 per cent of the 24,000 seats allocated for the three days of the tie have been sold, and the LTA is considering extra seating).

In any event, Rusedski emphasises that his goals are not confined to climbing back above Henman. "I'm not really worried about that any more," he says. "When you play each other, obviously you want to win. I'm looking more at the standard of trying to get somewhere I've never been before."

Your correspondent is reminded of Raich Carter, a master footballer, who once confounded a Derby County supporter who told him he was impressed with the unselfish manner in which Carter and his fellow international inside-forward Peter Doherty worked together. "When I run out to play a match," Carter said, "I visualise the back page headline, 'Brilliant Carter'. When Doherty runs out, he imagines the headline, 'Peter the Great'. And when the paper comes out, the headline is, 'Stamps scores hat-trick'."

Henman and Rusedski are similarly disposed to bolstering their reputations - likewise Sampras and Agassi - but tennis is altogether too individualistic for scene-stealing to be a by-product. "Wilkinson and Maclagan thrash Americans" ranks among the more improbable headlines of 1999.