Recovery restores the belief in Rusedski

Centre Court favourite with smile as big as his serve stays cool as history helps home-bred hero's title tilt
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The Independent Online

Greg Rusedski is entitled to say: "There are not so many question marks in my life". He has had more coaches than National Express, each one covering extensive ground in an attempt to transport a wide grin and a huge serve all the way to the Wimbledon men's singles title.

The one big question in Rusedski's public life concerns whether or not he will reach his destination, mention of which prompts the British No 2 to switch to cruise control.

"I like to make slight comparisons with the year I played my best at Wimbledon," he says, "which was '97, when I got to the quarter-finals and lost to [Cedric] Pioline. So far 2001 has been extremely similar to 1997. I think I'm putting myself in a good position to do play well and to do well.

"The thing is, I'm not going to put pressure on myself by saying: 'This is the year; this is when it's going to happen'. I'm just going to go out and enjoy my tennis. I want to be able to lift my head up every day and say: 'I'm giving it a good effort; maybe I didn't do the right things out there, but I competed really well'."

Rusedski, approaching his 28th birthday, leaves others to speculate that his power has diminished in major tournaments since he modified his service action as part of a general technical overhaul in order to preserve his creaking body. The important point, as he sees it, is that he feels fit and strong after working hard with his trainer, Machar Reid, having based himself in Barcelona during the clay court season.

"I've had the preparation. Like [Boris] Becker used to say, it takes two to three months to get ready for a Slam. When I was in Spain I was building my game for the grass-court season and the hard-court season." While it is too much to expect Rusedski, with his comparatively limited game, to transform himself into Manuel Santana, we trust that he continues to serve more efficiently than Manuel the waiter.

A year ago, Rusedski was defeated in the first round, 9-7 in the fifth set, by Vince Spadea, an American who had arrived at Wimbledon on a roll of 21 consecutive defeats stretching back to the previous October. "I don't think I was the most confident I've ever been after struggling through injuries and trying to fix up my game," Rusedski recalls, "and when I hit Vince Spadea it was a pressure match for me. I was expected to win because of his record. It was a horrible experience. I served for the match, I fought all the way the way through, and I still found a way to lose it. I couldn't be at a lower point."

Or so he thought. After taking a holiday in Spain with his wife, Lucy – "no television, no phones, nice and secluded and relaxing" – Rusedski returned to Wimbledon's No 1 Court for a Davis Cup tie against Ecuador which did not go according to plan. "In the second set of my match with [Nicolas] Lapentti, I went for a backhand volley and my whole right foot ended up swelling, and I went down and I heard a pop. All my ligaments were swollen.

"So I went from a bad experience to a worse experience and then missed the whole summer." Rusedski has come to regard No 1 Court as his "jinx court", recalling that he had lost there to Pioline in the quarter-finals in 1997. "I think I've been a little bit unlucky in my Wimbledons," he says. "In '98, I was No 4 in the world and thought I had a great chance to win the title, but I had a freak accident at Queen's and then broke with Tony Pickard. In '99 I felt I played quite good tennis. I lost a tough match to [Mark] Philippoussis. It was on Court One again. And 2000 was just miserable."

Having got that off his chest, Rusedski is able to grin again. "My approach has changed a little bit now," he says. "I think I'm more relaxed and at ease with myself as a person, and my coach, Brad Langevad, who's a bio-mechanic, has taken the stresses out of my game." Although too far down the ATP entry system to be seeded at Wimbledon this time, Rusedski takes encouragement from victories earlier this year against three players who have been ranked No 1 in the world: Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin and Andre Agassi.

"Whatever the seedings," he says, "it's always the best player that ends up winning. When you get into a Slam a lot of things have to fall for you.

"You have to have a little bit of luck and hope that the draw falls apart for you, like the year I got to the US Open final [1997). Everything fell right except the final. But when it comes push to shove, you've got to play great tennis. I think it's going to be quite an exciting Wimbledon, and the key players and figures are going to be Sampras and Agassi."

Assessing some of the other contenders, Rusedski says: "Tim [Henman] has been a semi-finalist twice, [Pat] Rafter could have won the final last year, Todd Martin's always dangerous, and should have been in the final when [Richard] Krajicek won in '96. [Lleyton] Hewitt's going to be tough. If [Goran] Ivanisevic gets his serve together, that's dangerous. [Jan-Michael] Gambill got to the quarter-finals against Sampras last year. [Marat] Safin can do all right. [Roger] Federer's talented.

"There are a number of guys who have a legitimate shot at the title, and a [Arnaud] Clement or a [Sebastien] Grosjean could cause a few upsets if they get used to the grass, because they're awfully quick and crafty. Then you have [Andy] Roddick. It's exciting to see an 18-year-old do so well, but at Wimbledon we'll just have to wait and see. The obvious ones are people who have won it before: your Sampras, your Agassi."

Given his own lamentable clay-court record, it is hardly surprising that Rusedski ranks Sampras among the greats of the sport even though the French championship is not among the Californian's 13 Grand Slam singles titles. "I think his commitment is unprecedented: six years No 1 in the world, 13 Grand Slam titles, seven Wimbledons. I mean, Wimbledon's very tough mentally, because you can have a guy come out, have a hot day serving on grass, and you can't do much out there. And he's played Ivanisevic in finals where he's taken him apart. Even if Sampras doesn't win the French Open – I honestly can't see him winning it – you have to rate him among the top three greatest players ever, if not the greatest player, because of his accomplishments."

And the two others are? "I never got to see Rod Laver when he won his Slams, and he won the Grand Slam twice, which was a phenomenal feat. And Andre Agassi is another one. I'm sure there were great players in the past, but Andre's done it the modern way, he's won all four Slams. If he plays for another three to five years, he can get up to 10 titles, even 13." The grin widens. "I've been through a good era of Sampras and Agassi playing, and I hope they hang it up soon so I can have three years by myself."