Rusedski: 'I'm lucky to be still playing'

A bit like that song by Chumbawumba, Greg Rusedski gets knocked down but he gets up again. Three times in the last nine months the British left-hander has been flattened by injury. Twice he needed an operation, first on the foot and then the knee, and was forced to sit at home in London, watching his world ranking plummet to 80.

After being out for nine months, Rusedski opted to return on his least favourite surface, the clay of Roland Garros, where he lost his first match in straight sets. The next chance to be seized was at Surbiton, that Thirties time-warp of a tournament which embraces those who have exited early from the French Open.

Rusedski simply wanted to get on a court, any court, and flail away. The main thing was to prove that he can get up again. With Wimbledon two weeks away, he is clocking up as much court time as possible at Surbiton, Queen's and Nottingham, matches which will buttress the confidence and test the fitness of a man who was once fourth in the world rankings and runner-up (in 1997) at the US Open.

"I'll be at Wimbledon," he vowed in the cramped surroundings of Surbiton. "It might be a little bit too soon, the next two weeks will give me the answer to that. Maybe the US Open [in September] might be more realistic, but if I can get on a roll, you never know.

"I will go to Wimbledon thinking how lucky I am to be still playing, still to be here after all that's happened to me. But I want to walk through those gates and still be a threat. I don't want to be making up the numbers, someone who shows up for a first- or second-round defeat. I want to be contending, playing my best."

He will, of course, be unseeded, a dangerous floater, someone nobody will relish being drawn against on turf. Right now, Greg is nourishing the memory of what Goran Ivanisevic did at Wimbledon as a wild card two summers back. "It's going to be one of the more fascinating Wimbledons, with Mark Philippoussis and myself as floaters," he said. "Thinking about Goran gives me hope."

Rusedski reached into baseball parlance to illustrate what has been happening to him: "Sometimes you get a few curve balls in your career, and I have had a few. People said Ivanisevic would never fulfil his potential but he managed to do it, and Sampras at the US Open last year proved a lot of people wrong, so there is still hope for me."

One of the people proved wrong by that Sampras victory was Rusedski himself. After going out to Pete in a five-set third- round match, Greg forecast Sampras would not last much longer. If his predictions were a touch wonky, there was nothing wrong with Rusedski's form at the time. He had just won Indianapolis and, in the space of 12 days, beaten the then world's top three: Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Tommy Haas.

"I was playing some of the best tennis of my career then," he recalled. "That's what really got me down when I was injured. After my foot surgery last October, I was feeling strong by March, practising with James Blake and Mardy Fish in Florida, playing well against those guys, who have done well this year. Even when I needed the knee operation after that, I accepted it. But when I hurt my neck on the day before my comeback in Zagreb, I got extremely frustrated. That was God having a little bit of fun with me. But the worst is behind me now.

"The body's fine, I'm feeling strong and fit. What I need now is plenty of matches to help me get my focus back. When I did come back at the French Open, my doctor said I shouldn't try it for two or three weeks, but I got through."

Though he lost to the 33rd-ranked Russian, Nikolay Davydenko, Rusedski claimed: "I was upbeat after that match because physically I was fine. I still hate coming off the court having finished second, but it was a big positive for me. I won a huge mental battle just by going to Paris."

Among the spectators at Surbiton was Britain's Davis Cup captain, Roger Taylor, assessing Rusedski's chances for the tie in Morocco in September, the month Greg will celebrate his 30th birthday. Despite pulling out of the last two ties, he insists he still wants to represent Britain. Against Thailand last September, the foot was clearly a problem, but when Britain faced Australia in Sydney in January, Greg had announced his unavailability while plotting his return to the ATP Tour. "I didn't feel up to the possibility of playing three five-set matches in a week," was his explanation. "I'm looking to play Davis Cup, but in a different role. We need somebody to come in for the doubles. Tim Henman and I need some help out there. Roger needs to change his strategy and throw somebody in once in a while."

And should Rusedski get knocked down once more by injury before then, the hope is that he will get back up again.

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