Tennis: Rusedski takes Britain into uncharted territory

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Greg Rusedski is about to venture where no British player has been before as one of the eight qualifiers for the ATP Tour Championship. If the tournament's history is anything to go by, he should be in for an eventful week.

It stretches the imagination to visualise the road to Hannover as an autobahn to paradise, but the organisers of Expo 2000 and the ATP Tour Championship have done their best with crowns and tiaras, anthems and arias.

Luciano Pavarotti and Greg Rusedski are about to appear in the trade fair location's production of the Elite Eight and a Top Tenor. The formidable Italian is due to open the show with a musical masterpiece tomorrow, and the Canadian-born Briton is hoping to close it with a mighty serve a week tomorrow.

The House of Hannover historically played a role in providing the jewels, replicas of the treasures of the British monarchy which were put on display in April to attract tourists to the city. Ion Tiriac, Europe's ubiquitous tennis entrepreneur, shrugged and in his colourful mid-European English: "Unfortunately, we don't have the heritage from the Queen and the kings and everything else to be called Wimbledon, but we are quite OK."

Tiriac, the man who helped guide Boris Becker to greatness, takes particular pleasure in welcoming Rusedski as Britain's first representative at the year-end men's tour championship, discounting umpires, coaches and journalists. "If I were younger," Tiriac teased, "I would have to stand up, probably, and salute."

Rusedski is becoming accustomed to recognition, on and off the courts. The 24-year-old from Montreal recently attended a reception at 10 Downing Street hosted by Tony Blair. The Prime Minister, not to mention Tony Banks, surely realised that Britain had already nationalised Rusedski's 143 mph serve.

In addition, Rusedski's advance to the final of the United States Open and his rise in the world rankings earned him the ITV Barclaycard Champion of British Sport Award, another welcome sign that tennis is gaining ground in this country.

Not everybody is impressed, however. Andre Agassi was almost dismissive the other week when reminded how encouraged Rusedski was by the improvement in his groundstrokes after defeating Michael Chang and Agassi back-to- back in straight sets in San Jose in February. "In talking about the strategies of the game," Agassi said, "there is one real simple philosophy that applies with Rusedski - if you don't lose your serve, it's hard to lose. And that is quite obviously the extent of that.

"I am not trying to minimise his game to just his serve, but come on, I mean if the guy had my serve, it would be a whole different ball game. If I had his serve... I have had some dreams before! But you have got to lose your serve to lose.

"Long before he was winning matches, he was coming in the locker room very dejected after losing 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in the third. I mean, the guy doesn't lose his serve. He just had a hard time keeping the ball on the court. Now he keeps the ball on the court. He is moving well and, you know, Brian Teacher [Rusedski's coach for 16 months until after the US Open] had him working real hard, which paid off, which was, I think, very positive for his game."

Whither Agassi? Currently ranked No 139, the former Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open champion and world No 1 is due to take a wild card entry into a Challenger tournament back home in Las Vegas next week with a view to rebuilding his confidence.

In sharper mode, Agassi would have relished competing in the ATP Tour Championship, particularly as the customary fast carpet court has been replaced by medium-paced concrete similar to the surface at the US Open. "I think that is the most even surface," said Australia's Pat Rafter, who defeated Rusedski in the US Open final. "It think it is very fair to everybody."

This is only the third occasion that the ATP Tour finale, known as the Masters until the Association of Tennis Professionals broke away from the International Tennis Federation in 1990, has been played on a surface other than carpet.

Guillermo Vilas, the Argentinian baseliner, defeated Ilie Nastase on grass in the final at Melbourne in 1974, having beaten John Newcombe in the round-robin, results which underlined that the baked lawns of Kooyong frequently played like hard courts. The following year, on a concrete court in Stockholm, Nastase defeated Bjorn Borg in straight sets.

Nastase's behaviour in his opening round robin match prompted his opponent, Arthur Ashe, to walk off the court in disgust. Ashe later guaranteed Nastase's place in the semi-finals by defeating Manuel Orantes, and Nastase sent Ashe a bouquet.

Rusedski remembers watching the Masters on television as a youngster when the event was staged in Madison Square Garden, New York, the scene of some dramatic matches and bizarre incidents. Jimmy Connors once called Ivan Lendl "chicken", alleging that the Czech lost a round robin match in order to secure a favourable semi-final draw. At the time, Lendl-bashing was fashionable in America.

Certain players did try to manipulate the system. On one occasion John McEnroe - or his father - miscalculated and made the New Yorker's draw more difficult. On another occasion, in January 1986, McEnroe was so shaken after being eliminated by Brad Gilbert, an American compatriot, that he walked out on the game for seven months.

Boris Becker and Lendl duelled for four hours and 43 minutes in the 1988 final, Becker winning the final point of a fifth-set tie-break with a backhand drive that struck the netcord and dropped dead with Lendl stranded on the baseline.

Whatever befalls Rusedski in Hannover next week, he is likely to be far too engrossed in a unique experience to read a novel during change-overs, as Jim Courier did at Frankfurt in 1993.