Focus: The Outsider

Facing the threat of a tennis ban following a positive drugs test, Greg Rusedski is about to discover whether support in his adopted country can survive a fall from grace. Stan Hey assesses his prospects
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The Independent Online

Greg Rusedski was born in Montreal, Canada. It will be a vicious irony if the British No 2 has his career killed off in the same city next month when the Association of Tennis Professionals decides whether his positive test for nandrolone merits mercy or punishment. Rusedski, a fully-fledged British national since 1995, will, if found guilty, almost certainly find himself shunned by both the country of his birth and the nation that adopted him.

Given the extreme sensitivities that a positive drugs test generates in any sport, it's unlikely that even an unqualified verdict of "not guilty" will be enough to save him. The Canadian, who became a Brit in order to further a promising tennis career on more fertile turf than he could find in his homeland, will have no place to go. He will be left stateless, his professional demise gloated over by those Canadians who resented his "desertion" and by many in the British sports establishment for whom he was never quite British enough.

Such a fate would bring back echoes of the treatment received by England's South Africa-born cricket captain of the mid-1970s Tony Greig, or of the infamous and doomed importation to Britain of Zola Budd. When Greig deserted his adopted shores to help lead the tycoon Kerry Packer's breakaway World Series tournament, the cricket correspondent of The Times thundered that "of course it should be remembered that Greig is not English". Budd escaped the sporting exclusion of white South Africa with the help of the Daily Mail to compete as a hastily-created Brit in the 1984 Olympics but the adventure went Boer-shaped when Budd not only failed in her event but was responsible for the trip and failure of home favourite Mary Decker.

Rusedski's adoption of his mother's country - she was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, while his father had a Ukrainian background - seemed less opportunistic, perhaps because by 1995 we'd become more tolerant as a nation; both to imported sporting talent and the idea of Commonwealth ties as a form of "family obligation".

There was also the recognition, in official quarters, that our national games were in dire need of new role models. Rusedski's arrival as a 21-year-old star in the making suited the Lawn Tennis Association, which was gifted its first British professional in the Top 50 since 1985. The tall big-server had failed to distract Canadian sporting interest from ice-hockey, so being a bigger fish in a conspicuously unpopulated pond was better than being in one that had frozen over. As he swapped his dual-nationality for a single one just before the 1995 tournament, the sporting press was frothing over with excitement at the prospect of a British tennis player who wouldn't be laughed at. Tim Henman, exactly a year younger than Rusedski, was being kept for later.

The Sun got into the swing of things by supplying Rusedski with a Union Jack bandanna and a paid-for column and Greg, rather guilelessly, became too eager, too soon, to show his previously-buried Englishness. Watching his press conferences - especially after he lost gallantly to champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round - you couldn't help be reminded of a war-time agent behind enemy lines trying to convince inquisitors of his commitment to the fatherland. "What football team do you support, Greg?" would be a typical opener. "Arsenal," Rusedski would reply eagerly, only to be invited to name the double-winning team of 1971. He smiled a lot - the big white teeth almost required it - and gushed about England as much.

When Rusedski won through to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 1997 then reached the final of the US Open two months later, his Britishness seemed to have been sealed. He was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, with Tim Henman as runner-up. Despite annual outbreaks of "Henmania", Tim has yet to win the prize. This gives the lie somewhat to the notion that Rusedski has never really been accepted here, a slur often wheeled out to decry his fellow Canadian-Brit, heavyweight boxing champion, Lennox Lewis, before his success won the British public round.

Oddly, Rusedski has always seemed to play much better in Davis Cup tournaments, when the Union Jacks are waving and the hooters blaring. Strange, then, that domestic support in his battle to prove his innocence has been muted. His former coach, Tony Pickard, while "believing that Greg is clean", included the punishing phrase "he's responsible for what goes into his body" in a statement; another former coach, Pat Cash, predicted a frosty reception in the locker-room whatever happens. When Peter Korda returned to the game after a year-long ban for nandrolone abuse he was booed by crowds and cold-shouldered by fellow professionals.

Fear of being judged guilty whatever punishment or mitigation comes his way seems to have forced Rusedski to fight, almost in an un-British way, to erase this scar on his life. First, there was the pre-emptive release of the news of his charge, followed by the almost desperate home-made video, made in his hotel room, in which he pleaded his innocence. Then there was Friday's statement, insisting on inside knowledge of 47 other positive tests among tennis players. The hope is to suggest a fault in the system, or a failure to identify natural causes of nandrolone, rather than the notion he is but one of many drugs cheats in the sport. The impression is of a man at the end of a five-set match, going into an extended tie-break to convince the world of his innocence.

In the constant, whirling tour of ATP tennis, where luxury hotel rooms, endless hours of private practice and carefully controlled press conferences cocoon players from the public, Rusedski may find himself the loneliest man on the circuit. But what will Britain, benighted by an ever-increasing list of sports heroes who have been revealed as drug-abusers, make of him now? Rusedski has tried almost as hard, and at times as clumsily, as Mohamed al-Fayed to be a true Brit. Al-Fayed bought Harrods and Fulham football club to prove he was one of us but still couldn't get British nationality. Rusedski's deepest fear may not be the close of an injury-plagued career but the termination of his British status and all its association. The tabloids will already be gauging just how Canadian Rusedski is becoming with each passing hour.