Tennis: Rusedski hits new heights of confidence

Hard work under new coach pays off as Britain's No 2 displays an improved all-round game
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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO L'Equipe, Greg Rusedski is in paradise after outplaying the great Pete Sampras in Sunday's final at the Paris Open. The French sports daily may have been misled by the woolly, brown, hooded training top Rusedski wore to his press conference, giving him the appearance of a beaming monk about to go to his reward.

The British No 2 is actually in Stockholm, hoping to continue his drive towards the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover, starting with a first round match against Germany's Tommy Haas. If the Stockholm seedings work out, Rusedski and Sampras will meet in the semi-finals.

Sampras is fortunate to be playing in Stockholm. He had used his year's allocation of five wild cards before asking the Swedes to provide him with another so that he could try to add points to his campaign to end a record sixth consecutive season as the world No 1. The only player who can deny Sampras is the Chilean Marcelo Rios, who is competing in his home tournament in Santiago this week. The crunch will come in Hanover three weeks from now.

The impact of Rusedski's win against Sampras, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, following six consecutive defeats, was summarised by the American. "This match was pivotal," Sampras said. "It really would have put me ahead by quite a bit."

Rusedski believed the victory was overdue. "When I lost the other times, the matches were very tight," he said. "Now I feel like a more complete player. There are shots I can play that I couldn't do before."

Among the shots the left-handed Rusedski has added to the fastest serve ever recorded (149 mph) is a meaty backhand drive, formerly a limp token gesture. There was evidence of the transformation last year, when Rusedski, coached by the Californian Brian Teacher, reached the final of the US Open. Teacher was given an honourable mention on Sunday, along with Nottingham's Tony Pickard and the Dutchman Sven Groenveld, Rusedski's coach for the past three months, when Rusedski spoke of his technical and tactical improvements.

One thing Rusedski's mentors have discovered is a reservoir of resilience which helps him overcome setbacks. He jokes about the "two months' holiday" he had as a result of an ankle injury which ruined Wimbledon for him in June, but it was one of the most disappointing episodes of his career.

"I thought I had a really good chance at the title," he said. "Sampras hadn't been playing that well. You can count on one hand, or two hands, the players that play really well on grass. I was the fourth seed, I had started to hit form, and I really enjoy the grass. I guess it wasn't meant to be. It was a good chance, but I just have to look at it from the respect that my game is getting better. At the end of the day, getting injured might be the best thing."

The physical pain from the ankle was followed by a psychological blow when Pickard, angered by Rusedski's secretive behaviour with regard to treatment in the days before Wimbledon, ended their association.

"Getting back from the injury was the hardest thing," Rusedski said, "and, secondly, working with a new coach always takes a little bit of time. We've clicked pretty well, and Sven's been extremely supportive. He's helped me in a lot of aspects to get my game back quickly. Because of the ankle injury, Sven had to wait about a month before we got to work, and we talked every day on the phone. Everything started to click in Vienna [last month], when Sven was trying to explain something on the return of serve."

Rusedski's service returns, along with a growing confidence in his ability to trade groundstrokes and his competitive spirit, have turned his season round. "I've been very consistent since my comeback," he said. "I've never lost in the first round. I've only lost once in the second round to [David] Prinosil. Every week, it's been quarters, semis or finals. I've been losing to good players that are usually in the top 10, so there's nothing to be ashamed of about that.

"I've beaten four players in the top 10, [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov twice, [Pat] Rafter twice, and then Sampras. That was my best match, especially under the circumstances, playing the world's No 1. Sven says that's the closest we've seen it so far where we can get it to the top. There's still room for improvement in my game."

The point was made that while Sampras broke through at 19, Rusedski was 24 when he reached the US Open final. "My game is getting more complete every year," Rusedski said. "Rafter took a long time to break through as well. Since [Andre] Agassi, [Michael] Chang and Sampras came on the scene, there hasn't been a teenager that has really rocked the men's game. [Marat] Safin came in this year, but he's only at No 50.

"It's a combination of things. Those are exceptional people and exceptional athletes. You look at [Boris] Becker, you look at Agassi. I'm not in the same category as them back then. But my game is working towards that level, and it's nice to to be able to hit it now and still have five or six more years to go."

Rusedski's performance in Paris was admirable for temperament as well as tennis. Unlike in Stuttgart the week before, when he fretted against Australia's Jason Stoltenberg after disagreeing with an umpiring decision, he controlled himself when under pressure from the crowd in Paris.

"It was extremely satisfying because of what happened in Stuttgart, which wasn't the most proper behaviour on the tennis court," Rusedski said. "I talked about it with Sven. He's very critical about things like that, and I think it's very important for him to be like that and to be honest with me. I think that really paid off last week, just the maturing process and being mentally stronger."

Rusedski is displaying far fewer bad habits these days, setting aside the woolly, hooded training top.

RUSEDSKI'S REVIVAL

An ankle injury in June wrecked Greg Rusedski's chances of success at Wimbledon and put him out of the game for two months. But recent wins against leading players have put the British No 2 in a position to end the year with a flourish.

Rusedski's notable victories since his comeback have come in tournaments in Vienna, in Stuttgart and in Paris.

12 October Vienna

Last 32: bt Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Rus) 6-3 3-6 7-6

Quarter-final: bt Pat Rafter (Aus) 6-3 7-6

26 October Stuttgart

Last 16: bt Rafter 7-6 6-7 6-4

2 November Paris

Semi-final: bt Kafelnikov 6-3 4-6 6-4

Final: bt Pete Sampras (US) 6-4 7-6 6-3

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