The age of rage within

Britain's adopted son stokes the inner fire as he strives to be a big hit in the top 20; Andrew Baker meets Greg Rusedski, a national hero on a mission of respect
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The Independent Online
It was an odd spot to meet a Wimbledon quarter-finalist. "You know Battersea Park?" Greg Rusedski had enquired on the phone. "You know the Buddha? I'll see you there." And so he did, a lanky figure in slacks and a smart black shirt, ambling along the Thameside path to a rendezvous in the shadow of the giant peace pagoda and its gold Buddha. "I like it here," Rusedski said, settling a little gingerly on a damp bench. "It's nice and peaceful." There is no great mystery about the location, and no deep significance in the delight in solitude. It is just that Greg has been rather busy of late.

One inevitable fact of life for a professional tennis player is that the more matches you win, the more you play, and right now Rusedski is paying the price of success. Warming up for Wimbledon, he reached the semi- finals of the Stella Artois tournament, losing to Goran Ivanisevic 20- 18 in an epic third set tie-break. He then won his first ATP Tour tournament when he beat Karol Kucera in the final in Nottingham.

At Wimbledon, as the nation will recall, he upset Mark Philippoussis en route to his first Grand Slam quarter-final. But there was no time to rest on the laurels before Rusedski and his fellow national hero Tim Henman flew out to Kiev to keep Britain's Davis Cup recovery on track. This accomplished, it was on to Stuttgart, where the tall guy wilted in the second round and flew home for a rest. Never, one suspects, has a man been more grateful to have a slight groin strain.

"I'm going to have a week or 10 days of rest," he said. "But I really have been on a great roll." For all the patriotic fervour and media hoopla of Wimbledon, it is events in front of the sparsely populated grandstands of Kiev that have made the greatest impression on Rusedski. "There is probably more pressure playing a Davis Cup tie than there is at Wimbledon," he reckoned. "You know you mustn't let your country or your team-mates down."

The pressure increases when you have to play the last match of the rubber with the scores tied at 2-2 and avoidance of a relegation play-off at stake. Rusedski's opponent, Andrei Rybalko, was ranked 350th in the world, but he had already proved against Henman that he was no pushover. "He had taken Tim to a fifth set, so I knew it wouldn't be such an easy match for me," Rusedski recalled. "He was in front of a home crowd and on his best surface, red clay. It was really difficult."

The 6ft 3in former Canadian prevailed, aided by a new, more aggressive approach to the game, most apparent in his eyeballing of his opponent before the match had even begun. "I gave the guy a straight look as we tossed for ends," Rusedski said. "And it seemed as though the psychology worked."

The notion of Rusedski as Mr Nasty is quite at odds with the easy-going manner which has always been his trademark. But he denies that he and the previously mild- mannered Henman, who was twice called for swearing in Kiev, are pursuing a new, tough image. "It's not about unpleasantness," Rusedski explained. "It's about the desire to win. I remember when I was two sets down against Jonathan Stark at Wimbledon and one or two line calls didn't please me. I used that and I used the crowd and I found a way to win. You have to get your mind focused on the task in hand, control your emotions but have the fire inside you."

Rusedski pointed out that this kind of tactic, properly used, can render a player practically unbeatable. "Take Thomas Muster. He is not the most talented player in the world, not by a long way, but he is so determined that every one of his opponents knows that he is going to have to battle to beat him. All of the top players have that."

That kind of observation crystallises Rusedski's ambitions. His game is changing in many ways, from the technical to the psychological, and just as he is no longer content to be seen solely as a big-serving freak, so he is dissatisfied with his ranking.

"I don't rely on the serve as much as I used to," he said. "My volleying is better, so are my ground shots. My return of serve and my backhand still need work, but really that's encouraging. I'm 25th in the world and there are still areas in which I can get better."

How much better? "Well, my first goal this year was to make it into the top 30. The next goal is to make it into the top 20. Then there is the next step... My coach, Brian Teacher, played in the top 10 and he knows what it takes. I feel very confident in my game, my mental attitude is better, and I know what I want to do."

It has been suggested that Rusedski has benefited from the limelight being deflected on to Henman over the past year or so. But the big left- hander does not feel that he has been cast in a supporting role. "I haven't felt at all like an understudy," he said, and for once the smile was switched off. "I have been proving myself with every tournament that I enter. The more you work to prove yourself, the more you earn the respect of the public."

And, finally, you earn a little time off. Rusedski will be dropping in on the Northern Electric Open in Newcastle this week. He had been scheduled to play before the groin strain ruled him out, but it is typical of his obliging approach to promoting the game that he is travelling north just to show his face. Otherwise he will be using the unaccustomed leisure time to go out with his girlfriend Lucy, to hit the shops and restaurants close to his Chelsea home, to do "you know, normal things".

After that, though, it is on to the hard courts and eventually the US Open, where another quarter-final appearance would earn Rusedski a place in the lucrative season-ending Grand Slam Cup. "Not for the money, though that's nice. Just to be in the top 16. You see, I don't want to be remembered as a guy who made it to quarter-finals. That's not my goal. I want to be remembered as a winner."

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