Tennis: Rusedski enjoys a bumpy ride

FACE TO FACE; Ian Stafford meets a tennis player with much to prove at this week's Nationals
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Four months ago, I played a couple of games of tennis against a little-known former Canadian tennis player reputed to possess the world's fastest serve. I wanted to face Britain's newest acquisition, to size him up both on and off the court.

We had a lot of fun that day, and as we bade our farewells, I wished him luck for the forthcoming tournaments at Queen's the following week, Nottingham and Wimbledon. Nice guy, that Greg Rusedski, even if I never saw the tennis ball. He possessed an endearing mix of excited anticipation, great energy and wide-eyed innocence, together with an obvious talent for tennis that made him stand out from the rest of his new-found, but depressingly average compatriots.

We spoke of what might lie ahead, but neither of us could have predicted the rollercoaster ride Rusedski has since enjoyed and endured in equal measures.

It is difficult to think of another sportsman who has, in such a small space of time, turned from a relative unknown to a household name and national hero, then to public enemy No 1 in another country. As he makes his debut today in the British National Championships at Telford, Rusedski must wonder what is in store for him around the next corner.

First, we had the unknown stage in the evolution of a British tennis star. Montreal-born Rusedski finally obtained his British status last May, thanks to his mother from Dewsbury and his girlfriend from Purley, with whom the young man had been living for four years, just in time for the English grass-court season.

"I knew that Britain desperately needed a top tennis player, and I knew that success on the court would bring some support off it," Rusedski said. "But I was making comparisons only with my previous experience, which was in Canada. I underestimated and miscalculated what was going to happen next."

Rusedski was then swept along by a fervently patriotic Wimbledon crowd into the second week of the tournament, beating the likes of France's Guy Forget along the way, wearing Union Jack bandanas and becoming, at least for 10 days, the face of British sport, if not quite the voice.

We had Greg filling the backs of the newspapers, the front covers of magazines, the inside pages, together with his trainee-actress girlfriend, Lucy Connor. Within a short space of time, the nation knew of Greg's every movement, from brushing his teeth to driving his car. We all loved Greg, and Greg loved us all.

"I just didn't expect it," he says, with the benefit of hindsight. "I mean, I knew I might get some support if I did well at Wimbledon, but even at Queen's and Nottingham, where I lost in the first rounds, everyone was shouting for me.

"As for Wimbledon, the attention was a bit like a blitz. I thought it would take at least a couple of years and a great deal more success before I even got close to such support and attention, but it just seemed to take off."

On a PR front, the whole exercise worked like a dream, even if his Union Jack bandana suggested to some that he was trying a little too hard to be British. "Yeah, I heard that as well," he says. "But I never really felt I had to prove myself to anyone in that respect. You have top sportspeople who represent Britain or England in other sports who were born elsewhere, and they do not have to prove their national allegiance. No, the bandana was just part of the whole, crazy week. I got caught up in it as much as everyone else."

There was even a time when he began to believe he could go the whole way. "Wimbledon was the first Grand Slam tournament I've played in where I began to think I could actually win it. The ground was hard and fast, I was serving and playing well, and I was on a roll. It was my bad luck that when I played Sampras he was just too good for me. I firmly believe that if he had played like he had in the first week, I would have beaten him, and then who knows?"

Still, a very satisfying week, followed by a victorious and overwhelming display in the Davis Cup, even if it was only against Monaco. Then the plot nosedived. Rusedski returned to Montreal for the first time since his "defection", to play in the Canadian Open.

"I felt like O J Simpson on trial," he says. "The Canadian press were appalling. They called me a traitor, and accused me of turning my back on my country and my support, and even accused me of failing to pay back the money that had been invested in me.

"Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, two of the greatest players the world's ever seen, played in front of a crowd of 500 people. I played against Michael Joyce in front of 7,500. Many of them had signs saying, 'Go Home Rusedski,' or wore T-shirts with 'Death to Greg' written on them, or with pictures of my face and a hangman's noose.

"I actually translated these as death threats, and employed bodyguards for the whole week while I was in town. When I served, people screamed 'foot fault' while the ball was in the air, and when I first walked on to the court, someone from the crowd threw a tennis ball at me." He pauses, the toothy grin leaving him for a few moments. "I'm only a tennis player, after all."

He lost, but was then persuaded to play in the doubles with the London- based Kenyan Paul Wekesa. "I asked him if he knew what he was letting himself into. We played in the evening in front of an 11,000 full-house. I was subjected to the same treatment, and Paul was so scared he couldn't hit the ball over the net. We lost the first set and the crowd went crazy, but somehow we managed to win the next two and the match. As I hit the winning point, the whole hall went dead silent, like the saloons in westerns when the gunman walks in."

Perhaps thankfully, Rusedski and Wekesa lost in their second doubles match. "I think it was harder for my parents and Lucy, who were in the crowd, than for me." Maybe, but he has no intentions of returning, even if the Canadian Open is one of the top nine tournaments in the world.

Now, following a string of mediocre results, apart from a semi-final appearance in Basle, Rusedski plays in Telford today against the world's 1,241st ranked player, Colin Bennett, in his bid to win his first national championship, and prise the title away from the perennial winner, Jeremy Bates. On the face of it, he has not lived up to the promise revealed so splendidly at Wimbledon.

"In some respects I'd accept that," he concedes. "But only because I also have high expectations of myself. Actually, I have achieved my goal of getting inside the top 40 in the world, but I'm still playing too many sloppy shots."

Rusedski has introduced the veteran Australian coach, Warren Jacques, the man who took Kevin Curren to a Wimbledon final, to his entourage. "I'm only 22, and I reckon the next four years will be make or break time. I reckon it's possible to get into the top 20 by next Wimbledon, which could get me a seeding. Whatever happens, I'm going to improve."

In the meantime, he has to deal with a host of British tennis players who will be looking for his scalp, especially those like Mark Petchey, who criticised his easy passage into British ranks.

A good four months then, Greg? "A crazy four months, more like. I'd prefer a more stable time ahead. If we meet this time next year, I hope you won't have heard quite so much about me, but I will be speaking to you as the world's number 20."

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