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THE MONDAY INTERVIEW : Serving up an all-round improvement

Tim Henman is not the only British tennis player to have made an encouraging start to 1997. Greg Rusedski spoke to John Roberts
He appreciates backhanded compliments, and praise for the forehand, too. He welcomes acknowledgement of the hard work he puts into sharpening his groundstrokes in the hope that one day they will catch up with his mighty serve. The mega-smile comes naturally. Greg Rusedski seldom needs to be told to grin and bear it.

It is Rusedski's good fortune to have a happy face, especially since the Canadian-born left-hander took to the British stage on the eve of Henmania like some unsuspecting Paul Anka about to be ambushed by The Beatles.

"Well," the 23-year-old from Chelsea via Montreal says, "I think you have to stay positive in a situation, whatever you're doing, whether it's tennis or whether it's any other sport or any endeavour in life."

Yesterday, while Oxford's own Tim Henman contested the singles final at the European Community Championships in Antwerp, Rusedski tested the left wrist which had caused his retirement with ligament damage during the final of a tournament in San Jose the previous Sunday.

That disappointment - so acute that it was accompanied by tears, of all things - occured after Rusedski had defeated Michael Chang and Andre Agassi back-to-back in straights sets and had taken a set off Pete Sampras, the world No 1, in the final. He trusts that the injury will not recur when he resumes in Philadelphia this week.

Rusedski's recruitment by the Lawn Tennis Association in 1995 provided Henman, one year his junior, with a target. Henman's subsequent success has in turn revitalised Rusedski.

Whichever way their seesaw tilts, the reaction from Henman and Rusedski tends to be the same, give or take a trans-Atlantic accent. "It's only good for British tennis, whether it's myself or it's Tim who's doing really well," Rusedski says. "I was really pleased when Tim did well in Doha and in Sydney and at the Australian Open and now in Antwerp. He congratulated me for a good week in Zagreb when we trained together the week leading up to San Jose. We're just both very pleased for each other, and we're not the sorts that look over our shoulder, shall we say.

"It's a friendly rivalry. It keeps the game in the public's eye, and our record so far on the ATP Tour has been good. We've had a British player in the finals every week this year besides the Australian Open, which isn't a tour event. So if we can keep that track record going I think we'll get a lot more people excited about tennis and hopefully have a few more youngsters picking up rackets and playing."

All of which may be rather unsettling for traditionalists clinging to the notion that the only Britons who get to singles finals are referees, umpires, line judges and journalists. "At least we're changing that trend," Rusedski says.

The outlook has brightened considerably for the LTA. The perennially ridiculed custodians of the British game can at last boast a couple of winners, with Henman in the top 20, Rusedski heading for the top 30, and a Davis Cup team capable of promotion to the 16-strong World Group.

There is an ominous sign, however, that Rusedski's endearing optimism is beginning to run away with him. "I think the British women's game will improve, too," he states, "because whether the men or the women are doing well, it has a positive affect on tennis any which way, I believe." With just one player, Sam Smith, in the top 200, we trust that things can only get better.

If the upswing continues for Henman and Rusedski, one, or both, could be seeded for Wimbledon. Britain has not had a player seeded for the men's singles since Buster Mottram was placed No 15 in 1982.

"I think if Tim can keep his rating where it is, or keep on improving, and I can improve myself to go up into the 20s possibly, a seeding will be deserved," Rusedski says. "The thing which is nice is when Buster Mottram was seeded at Wimbledon I don't think the expectations were so high, because Buster was more of a clay-court player. Tim and myself are much better players on grass than Buster was. I think it's our best surface at a major championship."

Fifteen years ago, Mottram was defeated in the fourth round by the unseeded American Tim Mayotte, who went on to lose to John McEnroe in the semi- finals. In the quarter-finals, Mayotte defeated his compatriot Brian Teacher, the 11th seed, 6-1 in the fifth set.

Teacher has been Rusedski's coach since May last year. Aged 42, the right- handed Californian is the same height as Rusedski, 6ft 3in, and is remembered for an aggressive serve-volley style with which he won the Australian Open in 1980, when the tournament was still played on grass. In October 1981 he rose to No 7 in the world.

"I'm having the full package," Rusedski says. "Brian and I work on all aspects of my game, the mental side, the strategic side and the technical side. We've worked very hard on my ground shots, my backhand top-spin and my return of serve.

"In the last two tournaments I've shown I can sustain a high level and stay consistent. People really can't say: `Well, you just had a really good day and you ended up beating Michael Chang, who's four in the world, and then you come out the next day and lose to Andre'.

"It was very pleasing to beat a player like Andre, because the best I'd ever done against him was get four games in a set. I not only beat Andre with my serve, but I beat him from the back of the court and with my return. I think that was one of the matches that could make my career.

"And even in the match against Sampras, in the first set I felt I played exceptionally well and by the time the second set rolled around my wrist was bothering me and he was up 2-0. But I take it as a positive. I felt I had a good chance to win the tournament and to beat Pete Sampras."

It may be remembered that Sampras was less than complimentary in his appraisal of Rusedski after defeating the new Brit in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1995. "I was so tired of hearing about Rusedski and listening to the British media," the American told the New York Times magazine.

"Well," Rusedski responds, "I think definitely that Pete was the better player, there was no question. I didn't feel like I had that many opportunities in the match. And this day, two years later, I feel like I'm a much better player and much more complete. And I think I'm mentally prepared for that challenge if we were to meet again at Wimbledon.

"I feel like I learnt a lot from that experience, and I think Pete wanted to prove a point on that day, that he was the best in the world and that he deserves the respect.

"Pete is playing some of the best tennis of his career. Winning the Australian Open, I think, has probably been his greatest feat to date, because this year the balls were very slow, the conditions were extremely hot and the court was slow. I think he's getting better and better with time, and I think he might go down in history as maybe the greatest player ever to play the game. So for myself to compete and play so well against him is only a positive thing.

"I feel like I'm getting closer with him every time we've played. But who knows what would have happened in San Jose? I would have been pleased, whether I'd won or lost the match, just to have finished healthy."

Rusedski apportions a fair amount of blame for his injury to the change in ball pressures from tournament to tournament. "I've played three tournaments and three different balls, a medium ball, a soft ball and a hard ball."

Sampras speculated that the stress of pounding that huge serve (139.8 mph, the fastest recorded on the ATP Tour) with a twist of the wrist may have caused Rusedski's problem.

"I don't think it would be that," Rusedski says, "because I've been hitting the ball that hard my whole life, ever since I've been young I've been serving as hard as I could with full force. If anything, it might be the combination of the balls and just a little bit of over-playing. I don't think I'm going to stop hitting my serve, shall we say."

Which raises another point. While Rusedski and Teacher work zealously on groundstrokes ("Frankly," the coach says, "he was hitting the backhand even better in the tournament than in practice") and footwork ("trying to get more little dancing steps, like a boxer") is there not a risk of neglecting the knock-out punch?

"You just have to pay attention to his serve," Teacher says. "You don't want to move to another area of his game, like his backhand, and ignore his serve and volley, which is his bread and butter. You can't ignore it, because it's his weapon, so you've always got to make sure that it stays fine-tuned. You want to absolutely make sure that you still work on his strengths."

Fitness permitting, the serve ought to be in good nick for Britain's Davis Cup tie against Zimbabwe at Crystal Palace on 4 to 6 April, prior to which Rusedski hopes to compete in four indoor tournaments, in Philadelphia, Rotterdam, Copenhagen and St Petersburg.

"I've always been pleased with my decision to play for Britain," he reiterates. "I believe that the LTA and everybody in British tennis has been very supportive, and I've never had a day thinking that what I did I shouldn't have done. Whether I was doing well or whether I was doing poorly, I was always pleased to represent Britain. It's been absolutely brilliant, and I don't think I will ever have any regrets." Service with a smile.