For the first time since his decision to play under the British flag in 1995, Greg Rusedski will begin his Wimbledon campaign relaxed and with little expected of him.
Despite his triumph at Nottingham last Saturday, you can just about count the number of matches the British No 2 has played in the past 10 months on the fingers of both hands, virtually every part of his body has broken down at one time or another, and for about five minutes, he even considered throwing in the towel after another injury forced him to abort his return to the sport. Ironically, fitness permitting, this could be his best chance yet. A relaxed Rusedski, free from the pressure of expectation, is one heck of a dangerous tennis player.
When he reached the final of the US Open in 1997, there was no evidence to suggest that he had it in him. He had not won a match in three previous appearances in New York, he had only reached one final on a similar hard court surface before, and his lead-up to the last Grand Slam event of that year had offered little hope. What followed remains the best two weeks of his tennis life.
The trend of playing his best tennis when it is least expected has continued throughout his career. "Sometimes you can want something too badly and then you put too much pressure on yourself," confirmed Rusedski, talking at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club, where he looked more comfortable in front of the media than he ever has.
"If I just let my game flow and play the relaxed way that I want to, then that will help. Probably I have put too much pressure on myself in the past, it's only human nature. The people that can relax more and handle those situations do well. Look at Martin Verkerk, the guy that got to the French Open final. It was only his third Grand Slam event, and in the second round he was down 5-2 and 0-40, but he wasn't thinking at all, he just went up and swung away."
Which is what you imagine Rusedski is planning to do himself at Wimbledon. Certainly, if his left-handed serve finds its rhythm, Andy Roddick, the current form player on grass, should watch out. They are scheduled to meet in the second round - their third meeting on grass inside a year. The first of those came last year in the Wimbledon third round, when the Briton gave the American a grass court master-class. Zoning in on Roddick's frail two-handed backhand, he knocked off volleys by the dozen to win easily in straight sets. It prompted John McEnroe, commentating for BBC television, to describe it as one of the finest displays of grass-court tennis he had seen.
Two weeks ago, on the lawns at Queen's Club, Roddick turned the tables. Boasting Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert in his corner for the first time, and a new, improved backhand that this time found the corners of the court and not the bottom of the net, he won a tight three-set encounter and went on to win the title. If they meet again at Wimbledon though, Rusedski will fancy his chances.
The lack of expectation that accompanies Rusedski's Wimbledon entrance this time may help him again, but he would have preferred a slightly less painful journey. Shortly after his enthralling five-set loss to Pete Sampras in the third round of the US Open last September, Rusedski began to feel pain in his left foot.
It required surgery and he did not play again all year. Just when he thought he was ready to come back in January, he re-aggravated the injury and was out for a further two months. It got worse. As he prepared to return for the Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in March, he felt his knee go, and went back under the surgeon's knife. The final straw came last month when, an hour before he was due to play his first match in nine months at a minor Challenger event in Zagreb, he hurt his neck in practice.
Those of us who were there in Zagreb to cover his return could not help but sympathise with Rusedski. He looked a forlorn figure with yet another ice-pack strapped to his body and it was then that he fleetingly considered retirement.
"You feel like you've had enough sometimes but that's just your initial thought process," he said. "You want to make that decision yourself rather than injury deciding your future for you."
Since then, his body, touch wood, has held together. If Rusedski can stay fit and relaxed at Wimbledon, and no one tells him what a great chance he has to win the title this year, he might just do something special.
RUSEDSKI AT WIMBLEDON
1993 (unseeded) Ist round: Lost to Edberg (2) 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.
1994 (unseeded) 2nd round: bt Kulti 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; lost to Bergstrom 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6.
1995 (unseeded) 4th round: bt Simian 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; bt Forget (16) 1-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5; bt Delaître 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6; lost to Sampras (2) 6-4, 6-2, 7-5.
1996 (unseeded) 2nd round: bt Nestor 7-6, 7-5, 6-2; lost to Steven 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.
1997 (unseedeed) QF: bt Philippoussis 7-6, 7-6, 7-6; bt Stark 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, 11-9; bt Richardson 6-3, 6-4, 6-4; bt Reneberg 7-6, 6-4, 7-6; lost to Pioline 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
1998 (seeded 4) 1st round: lost to M Draper 4-6, 6-2, 5-4 (ret).
1999 (seeded 9) 4th round: by Stoltenberg 6-1, 6-4, 6-2; bt Parmar 6-3, 6-4, 7-6; bt M Norman 6-3, 6-4, 7-5; lost to Philippoussos 2-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1.
2000 (seeded 14) 1st round: lost to Spadea 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 9-7.
2001 (unseeded) 4th round: bt Pavel 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2; bt B Black 6-1, 6-3, 6-4; bt Ferrero 6-1, 6-4, 6-4; lost to Ivanisevic 7-6, 6-4, 6-4.
2002 (seeded 23) 4th round: bt Melzer 6-1, 6-4, 7-5; bt H Lee 6-1, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2; bt Roddick 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; lost to Malisse 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.Reuse content