Tennis: Rusedski still forced to suffer in silence

WIMBLEDON 97

The party line has been solid. Yes, we are friends and, of course, the rivalry can only be good for our respective games. At the Nottingham Open Greg Rusedski laid bare a grievance that has niggled him since Tim Henman happened.

If anyone has been overwhelmed by Henmania it is the British No 2. Two years ago Rusedski was the focus of the nation's attention at Wimbledon and Radio Four's Today programme even struck up a few bars of Strauss's Radetzky March in a contrived honour. Twelve months on and his name barely rose above the clamour for Henman.

He did not murmur a word until Saturday when his fourth title and his first on home soil gave him the platform. "Maybe I'll get a headline now," he said. "It's not that it rankles, but it would be nice if people were to report that I won rather than Tim lost.

"Even last week at Queen's when I was in the semi-finals the media was asking what was wrong with Tim rather than what is right with me." Not that it rankles.

Which made the circumstances of his win on Saturday the more frustrating. If things had gone to plan Rusedski, the first British winner on home territory since Mark Cox in 1975, would have been applauded by a packed Centre Court after his 6-4, 7-5 win over Slovakia's Karol Kucera. Instead an important milestone in his career was played out to near silence.

As on Friday, the weather sent the Nottingham Open scuttling indoors and the crowds, such as they were, were able to express their approval only by banging on the windows. It put a whole new meaning to the expression, the pane barrier. Not that Rusedski had to overcome too many hurdles at Nottingham himself. His semi-final appearance at Queen's the week before suggested his form is arriving just in time for Wimbledon and last week did nothing to dispel that impression. To win a tournament without losing a set is some achievement no matter the circumstances. His booming left- handed serve will unsettle even the best players - as his taking of a set off Pete Sampras at San Jose in February testifies - but his groundstrokes have improved starkly so that his returns are now respected where they once were walloped. If he was not facing the No 7 seed Mark Philippoussis in the first round you would be confident of him making some impact at Wimbledon.

"My volleys are usually there every day," he said, "but I still have to work on my returns. The day when I can return with 100 per cent consistency I will be able to compete with the best in the world on any given day."

At least he will return to the All England Club with a break of a day. The organisers at Nottingham had intended playing the final yesterday but when the weather forecast showed showers interspersed with rain, the sensible course was taken and the semi-finals and final were rattled off on Saturday.

"I've played 11 matches in two weeks so I feel I've more than enough tennis under my belt," Rusedski said. "My first round match against Philippoussis is a difficult encounter and I'll need to be fresh and sharp because the match might swing on one or two balls as we both serve so well. I'm very confident but the important thing is to be well rested."

Henman, who lost to Kucera in the semi-finals, will be even fresher although the impression is that Wimbledon is coming too soon for the British No 1 who is struggling to recapture his best after an elbow operation in March. His main weaknesses are his serves and his forehand which are good one minute, bad the next. The fact that he served nine double-faults against Kucera tells its own story.

Henman's world ranking will suffer if he does not match his quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon while Rusedski is on the rise and it is not inconceivable that they will pass each other in the near future. Rusedski, while expressing genuine sympathy for his friend, would probably enjoy that.

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