Tennis: Rusedski climbs rankings towards place in history

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The Independent Online
Greg Rusedski's astonishing performance at the United States Open underlines the impact the 24-year-old from Montreal has had on British tennis since declaring his allegiance in May 1995. By advancing to yesterday's men's singles final here, the hulking left-hander projected himself to the top of the list of British players since the ATP world rankings began in 1973.

The unseeded Rusedski's semi-final victory guaranteed that his ranking would rise today from No 20 to at least No 11 in the world, equalling the status achieved by Roger Taylor in 1973. Taylor was born in Yorkshire, as was Rusedski's mother.

Rusedski went into last night's final against Australia's Pat Rafter, the No 13 seed, with an opportunity of becoming the first Briton to win a Grand Slam men's singles title since Fred Perry defeated the American Donald Budge at Forest Hills in 1936. The rewards which accompany the glory of winning the inaugural men's final in the Arthur Ashe Stadium include the opportunity for Rusedski to zoom to No 5 in the world rankings, Rafter to No 3.

Rusedski, assured of qualification for the 16-man Grand Slam Cup in Munich, in which even first-round losers collect $100,000 of the $6m prize money, raised his prospects of becoming the first Briton to compete in the eight- man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover.

Saturday's win against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7- 5, after two and a half hours, guaranteed Rusedski at least $350,000. Along with the title, a $650,000 cheque was at stake last night.

Rafter, a 24-year-old based in Bermuda, eliminated two American contenders en-route to the final, Andre Agassi in the fourth round, and No 2 seed Michael Chang in the semi-finals. Chang was unable to stem the flow of points as Rafter attacked from the start, winning, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Rusedski, suffering from a throat infection, won the opening set against Bjorkman in only 17 minutes. Thereafter, the Briton had to rely on his reserves as well as his serves to recover from two sets to one in arrears.

"It could have gone either way," Rusedski admitted. "Jonas missed a few volleys. I managed to take advantage of that. But then Jonas brought his game up a level and didn't make any unforced errors. He played two very good sets. I just tried to hang in there. I think the 0-40 game, which I came back to win [at 4-3 in the fourth set], was the key game to the match."

Rusedski saved the third break point in that game with a backhand volley which clipped the net cord. He held up a hand of apology and then asked the ballboy to fetch the same ball back to him for his next serve.

Bjorkman did not argue afterwards about the importance of that point at 30-40: "That one was definitely on Greg's side today," he said. "I may have been having some on days before in this week. Unfortunately, that one didn't go my way." Well, it was Rusedksi's birthday.

The Swede was asked why he thought so many players had made a breakthrough at the major championships this year, Rusedski and Rafter contesting the final here, Cedric Pioline advancing to meet Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, Carlos Moya playing Sampras in the final in Melbourne, and Gustavo Kuerten winning the French Open.

"It's a time when some of the greatest players are on their way out," he said. "Like Edberg last year, now we have Stich and maybe Becker [retiring]. It's a time when opportunities are coming up for some new guys to do well. I think that's natural.

"Competition in the men's tournaments is getting tougher and tougher. Maybe before you had the top guys, and there was a 10 to 15 per cent chance that they lost in the early rounds to somebody ranked over 100 in the world. Now you can lose to anyone in the top 200 if you're not playing well, not feeling good. All the guys are so strong and hungry out there."

Rusedski said, "I think there's not a huge difference between the players [ranked] one to 20 now. Fair enough, there's Sampras, with all the titles he's won. But the depth of the game is getting stronger and stronger."

Bjorkman had only lost to Rusedksi once in their previous five matches. "He's been improving his baseline game, and he's not making too many unforced errors anymore," he said. "His level has been coming up."

Rusedski's coach, Brian Teacher, was pleased with the way he had stuck to his task: "He showed a lot of determination and guts and willpower." he said. "I thought the second and third sets were very one-sided. Jonas was playing extremely well.

"It was like the first set was too good to be true. Greg seemed to be playing flawless, hitting everything he tried. Jonas really had trouble getting his racket on the ball when Greg was serving. He was a little bit tentative." That was understandable, given that Rusedski was again hitting serves at up to 142 mph.

"But, you know, in three out of five sets, I knew Jonas was going to start playing better," Teacher added. "Sure enough, not only did he play better, he played great. Then, in the fourth set, Jonas made a couple of errors, Greg made a few good shots. Next thing you know, the momentum has just flip-flopped.

"I just knew at the start of the fifth that Greg was going to be more pumped up and moving better than he was in the second and third. Sure enough, he really did. The adrenaline carried him through."

Rusedski, who did not win a single match on his three previous visits to the US Open, has experienced the most exciting fortnight of his life on the medium-paced courts at Flushing Meadow.

He is scheduled to return to Britain today to play in the Samsung Open on the slower clay courts at the West Hants Club. From Broadway to Bournemouth.

Britain's highest ranked tennis players

Leading British men since the ATP world rankings began in 1973

1= Roger Taylor

No 11 Sept 1973

1= Greg Rusedski

No 11 Sept 1997

3= Mark Cox

No 14 July 1977

3= Tim Henman

No 14 Jan 1997

5 Buster Mottram

No 15 Feb 1983

6 John Lloyd

No 21 July 1978

7 Colin Dowdeswell

No 31 Dec 1983

8 Jeremy Bates

No 54 Aug 1994

9 Mark Petchey

No 76 Aug 1994

10 Richard Lewis

No 77 Dec 1977