WIMBLEDON '95: Burden of the Brits

Simon O'Hagan offers some advice to Greg Rusedski as he sets out to carry the hopes of the home fans
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TAKE a look at the fellow on the right, Greg. The greatest British tennis player in history. You won't need reminding that Fred Perry was the last Briton to win Wimbledon, in 1936. And in the year that Fred died you have joined the ranks of those burdened with his legacy.

The question is - do you really know what you are letting yourself in for? You seem such a nice, well-brought up chap (your Yorkshire mother, perhaps) - far too nice, in fact, to allow yourself to be subjected to the agonies that are the lot of every British player at Wimbledon. Not that Jeremy and Tim and Mark and Jo and Clare aren't nice too. But they haven't been able to choose who to represent.

Was life so bad flying the flag for Canada? I've never been there myself, but it looks beautiful in the pictures. And what about the Canadians you've left behind - Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, JK Galbraith, Pamela Anderson, Robertson Davies, Wayne Gretzky. Brains, beauty, musicianship and sporting prowess - and that's just Pamela Anderson.

Still, you've made your decision. And I have to admire your commitment to the cause. You've genned up on your British tennis history (not a big task that, admittedly), you've treated your critics with dignity, you even lost to Mark Petchey, one of your new fellow- countrymen, in the first round at Queen's. Very obliging of you. In fact, you've had two first-round defeats. That shows how seriously you are taking your new role.

Still, nothing that's happened to you in the six short weeks since you became Britain's new No 1 player will have prepared you for what's to come over the next fortnight. OK, you've played at Wimbledon before. But did anybody outside Quebec notice? This year is different. This year you're our Great British Tennis Hope.

Losing isn't the half of it. There are much worse things than that. For a start, the crowd. They don't just cheer wildly when you hit a winner. They cheer every time your opponent makes a mistake as well. This, as Andrew Foster will tell you, is not good news.

Andrew Foster? Perhaps he escaped you when you were doing your revision. That's another point to bear in mind. The journey from celebrity to anonymity can be very short in British tennis. Andrew was the 21-year-old from Stoke who reached the fourth round two years ago and met Pete Sampras.

This was the match scheduled for an outside court towards the end of a long hot day when the home supporters had found something more enlivening than tubs of strawberries to keep them going. By the time it got under way the boozy Brits standing on top of each other to get a glimpse of the action weren't just ready for a few rousing choruses of "There's only one Andrew Foster", they were primed for a full-scale court invasion. It was the first and only recorded instance of Sampras losing his temper. But he didn't lose the match. So what's happened to poor Andrew since then? He reached the second round last year, but last week he was slumming it at Roehampton trying to qualify. He failed. So remember, like any group of animals, a Wimbledon crowd can be dangerous when roused.

Same goes for the press. Keeping them happy with an endless stream of victories, not to mention titbits about your private life, can take a lot out of you. Eventually you may be forced to tell them things which are really true.

Hang on, I hear you say, I may be playing up the modest Brit bit, but I do know how to hit the ball you know. I'm aware of that. But your 137mph serve isn't necessarily the answer. Remember John Feaver? You probably don't. He was a Great British Tennis Hope in the Eighties. Boy could he serve. He once clocked up 42 aces in a match and still lost - a Wimbledon record.

The tantalising failure is, of course, a British speciality which you'll have to learn. In fact there comes a point - usually midway through the fourth set when Chris or John or Nick is making a plucky effort to get the match back to two sets all - when victory can honourably be claimed. Andrew Castle's five-set defeat to Mats Wilander was much more glorious than if he had brushed him aside 6-0 6-0 6-0. When Chris Bailey stood and watched as Goran Ivanisevic saved match point with a second-serve ace, we loved him for it. Only one thing could be better than Chris Wilkinson breaking Stefan Edberg's serve six times - losing his own nine times. So if you want to follow the path to glorious failure, you've come to the right place.

Of course, there are other compensations for all this. You could end up marrying Chris Evert, like John Lloyd did. But then I was forgetting, you've got an English girlfriend who is one of the main reasons you're here in the first place. Let's hope that one day you have a lot to thank her for.

Greg Rusedski

Age: 21

World ranking: 58

It is surely coincidental that Greg Rusedski has fallen out of the top 50 since he became a British player. Defeats by new compatriot Mark Petchey at Queen's and Argentina's Javier Frana in the first round at Nottingham can have done little for the former Canadian's confidence, and he headed for the four-man Quintus Cup at the Hurlingham Club for extra grass-court practice late last week. The key to Rusedski's game is his serve, which at 137mph is the fastest on the circuit. Despite Wimbledon's new balls, which are meant to hamper big servers, and his close proximity in the draw to fellow left-hander and No 16 seed Guy Forget, Rusedski has the game for an impressive run at the championship. Whether the crowd will take to him is another matter.

Jeremy Bates

Age: 33

World ranking: 85

Bates played some of the best tennis of his career last year, defeating Boris Becker at the Stella Artois tournament and thrilling the Wimbledon faithful with his run to the fourth round. His preparation this year has not been so impressive: he defeated his doubles partner Tim Henman at Queen's, but complained of feeling "absolutely exhausted" after losing to Alexander Volkov in Nottingham. With the arrival of Greg Rusedski, Bates no longer has to bear the burden of national expectancy alone. His vast experience has made him immune to the intimidation of big matches, he says: "I've been around longer than Hadrian's Wall." He may need such stoical qualities in a tricky first-round encounter with the big-serving American Derrick Rostagno.

Mark Petchey

Age: 24

World ranking: 112

Petchey has taken some impressive scalps as his senior career has taken off in the past 18 months. In 1994 he beat Michael Stich in a hard-court event in Sun City and knocked Michael Chang out of the Los Angeles Open. He also lost close contests with Thomas Muster and Andre Agassi. This year his most important victory, at least in terms of personal morale, came when he turfed the new British No1, Greg Rusedski, out of the Stella Artois championship. "I certainly didn't need motivating for this one," he said after the match. "I had a point to prove." Petchey's Davis Cup performances have often been disappointing, but it seems that the arrival of Rusedski has stirred him up. Just as well: his first-round opponent at Wimbledon is Mats Wilander.

Jo Durie

Age: 34

World ranking: 326

Durie has had four operations in the past two years on her ailing knees, and will give up the struggle against injury when she retires from tennis after this Wimbledon. In her 18-year career she has reached the semi-finals of the French and US Opens, and in January 1985 she was ranked as high as No 5 in the world. But at Edgbaston she was defeated by Melanie Schnell, who is 16 years her junior, and at Eastbourne last week she lost to Patty Fendick. Both matches were hard-fought, though, and her fury over a disputed line-call at Edgbaston showed that the spirit is still willing even if the knees are complaining. A first-round victory at Wimbledon is likely to bring her up against the No 4 seed, Jana Novotna: a show-court exit would be a fitting end to a long career.

Clare Wood

Age: 27

World ranking: 213

The fact that the British No1 is ranked 213th in the world speaks volumes for the decline of British women's tennis. A long-term hamstring injury is largely responsible for Wood's slide from her ranking of 77 last summer, and she faces surgery later this year to cure the problem permanently. An early exit from the DFS Classic at Edgbaston has left her short of match practice for Wimbledon, but the right-hander remains optimistic. "One match could turn it around," she said at Edgbaston. "And there is no reason why the results shouldn't come." She faces a far-from-impossible task in the first round at Wimbledon against the French veteran Isabelle Demongeot, who struggled to beat Britain's Joanne Moore in the Birmingham tournament.

Tim Henman

Age: 20

World ranking: 219

Tim Henman's world ranking jumped 600 places in two years, from 774 at the end of 1993 to a career-best of 146 last year. In 1994 he won 17 consecutive matches on the Indian Satellite Circuit, and two titles on the LTA Indoor Satellite Circuit. He qualified for his first ATP Tour event in Tokyo, reaching the third round where he was beaten by Pete Sampras. Then in Singapore last September he broke his left leg in three places and was forced to take five months off. But strong wins at Queen's over Martin Sinner, and at Nottingham over Jonas Bjorkman confirmed that he has come back to his best form of last year. Henman can look forward to facing Sampras again in the second round at Wimbledon if he gets past Kenya's Paul Wakesa in the first.