Wimbledon 99: Rusedski aims to be millennium man

`I think I am much more mature. I want to return to a Grand Slam final. I want to be able to say I won one'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
BY THIS time, New Year resolutions are usually things of the past, broken, or forgotten, along with lofty predictions made by red-faced journalists, who are resolved not to make any more predictions. Ominously, Greg Rusedski has been reminded that, at the beginning of 1998, your correspondent tipped him to win Wimbledon, and did so again in January this year.

"So hopefully your going to tell me now you're predicting me to lose in the first round."

On the contrary. And at least this time Rusedski is going to be a runner. "Yes, at least I've got two legs."

Tennis appears to have been infected by a contagious mood of optimism. People are daring to believe that Britain will have a Wimbledon men's singles champion.

Rusedski, the No 9 seed, is a confirmed believer. "I think it's a great possibility at the moment," he says. "Every year, myself and Tim have got better at Wimbledon. The only year I've had where I didn't improve was '96. I played '93 first round, '94 second round, '95 fourth round, '96 I lost in the second round, '97 I got to the quarter-finals, and last year I was seeded fourth in the championships and got injured. Tim has done quarters, quarters, semis.

"The chances are definitely there for us to do it. Right now I'm feeling positive, I'm working hard, I'm doing what it's taking, and now it's just a question of getting there and managing to turn that lock. Last year, Tim had a fabulous chance. If he could have won that third set against Sampras, I think he would have been Wimbledon champion.

"Myself, I didn't have much of a chance on one ankle, but I tried and it didn't work out for me. This year it could be very exciting, because it's going to be the last year in the 20th century where we're trying to get a Wimbledon champion. Sampras hasn't really hit that big form, and [Richard] Krajicek's played well, but there's not one person where you can say, `That's going to be the man'."

Which suggests that Rusedski and Henman are not alone in fancying their chances. "A lot of people are hungry to do well," Rusedski agrees. "If you look at last year's semi-final line-up, it was fabulous. You had Tim and Pete and you had Krajicek and Goran [Ivanisevic]. It would have been better if I could have been there, but unfortunately that didn't happen.

"I think there are about 10 players who have a chance to win: Sampras, who has won it five out of six years; Krajicek, who was the one who ended Sampras's spell; Goran, who has been a finalist three times, even though he hasn't played well this year; Todd Martin, if he can stay healthy, [Mark] Philippoussis, who is a much-improved player; myself and Tim, of course; [Pat] Rafter, whose form has come back, and then you have maybe one or two other players in there who are danger men."

When Rusedski and Henman both reached the quarter-finals in 1997, neither proved able to rise to the occasion, Rusedski losing to the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, Henman to Germany's Michael Stich.

"When you get to the top," Rusedski says, "sometimes life can get a little bit easy, per se, because you've made yourself a nice livelihood. Then you need that extra little push. I think if that situation arises again, like against Pioline, where I'll be tired, a combination of the mental and physical, then I know that if the mind can stay there you can pull through that, and that's what makes you win Grand Slam championships.

"That's what I think I lacked at Wimbledon in '97. I mentally managed to pull through that when I went to the US Open final. I think I am much more mature and better at dealing with those situations. I want to return to a Grand Slam final. I want to be able to say I won one. I played Rafter at the US Open in '97, and he went back and repeated last year, and that puts you in a different class."

The 26-year-old Rusedski is not the type to cloak his ambitions. "The public want a Wimbledon champion, they want to say, `We have a British Wimbledon champion', instead of always having to say, `Well, there's Fred Perry, who won Wimbledon in 1936'. There's such a great expectation. I can understand that, because we have two very good players right now, and there's a great chance of that happening. There's such a buzz around Wimbledon.

"In the past, when Jeremy [Bates] was playing - no disrespect, he did tremendously well, twice getting to the fourth round - there wasn't the same expectancy, because now the public believe that we've really got a chance."

Fred Perry died in February 1995, a few months before the Canadian-born Rusedski decided to play for Britain. "I met Fred when I was about 15 years old, at the Players' International Tournament in Montreal, and I asked Fred what his tennis secret was. He said, `It's very simple, you've just got to keep the ball one more time over the net and one more time in the court than your opponent, and you'll never lose'.

"What Fred Perry accomplished is tremendous. I don't think myself or Tim, in the modern era, could ever accomplish what he did. I don't think there'll ever be a British player like Fred Perry. If we could win just one championship, that would be tremendous."

Perry's astonishing success, incorporating a hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles, was achieved by a gritty attitude (bloody-mindedness, some would say) combined with the great man's abundant skills. Rusedski, behind the semi-permanent grin, has a steely edge.

"I'm learning new things every day in my game," he says, "but what got me to the top 10 in '97 was more sheer determination and hard work than anything. I don't think I was technically the best, I don't think I was necessarily physically the best, but mentally I just wanted to try to find a way to win every point.

"Sometimes I get a little frustrated and mad out there, but I just want to find a way to win, no matter what the surface is or who I'm playing. I think a lot of the great players have that, but show it differently. I think the public like to see somebody that gives 100 per cent out there, and sometimes is not afraid to show their emotions. They want to get a feeling of what the person is like.

"For me, it's a case of combining that hunger to win with the technical soundness and the relaxation. If you look at Tim, he's very technically sound, he moves very well. There's a different perception of the two of us when you're watching us play."

Rusedski is the left-hander with the howitzer serve (the fastest on record at 149 mph). "Last year, when I got my ankle injury, I think my serve slowed down slightly. It's improving now. But you have to serve it smart. You have to hit the corners, place it right, and mix it up. People playing me nowadays always think, `OK, I'm playing Rusedski, he's going to hit it hard', and they get really intense and ready. But then, if, all of a sudden, I throw in a kick-serve, it totally throws their timing off."

Wimbledon is tailored for his power. "It's such an exciting event, because you've got to deal with the change in the court, you have to deal with the weather. There are so many elements involved you cannot control. It took Sampras a while to get used to the grass, but, once he did, everything clicked, and he's been fabulous on it ever since. But you've got to get over those little humps. It's putting everything together. You can do extremely well at Wimbledon, but to win you have to be a complete player."

While not your average Cockney, Rusedski tries hard to blend with the London scene. "I enjoy my life here. I'm engaged to get married [to Lucy Connor], so that's a big step in every man's life.

"I like my football, I like watching Arsenal on the telly. I don't get to go as much as I'd like, but when I stop playing I guess I'll be able to go for the full season.

"If I want to go to a restaurant anywhere, I can call up and I'm fortunate that I can use my name to get a table, and things like that. But it's also nice to have the respect of the public, and I think the public appreciate what I do. I might not always get the results they'd like, but I think they appreciate the effort I give."

When did he begin to feel accepted? "I think the public were supportive of me from the beginning. The papers in the beginning said I was a true Brit because I couldn't win my first two matches. I had my sceptics in the beginning, in '95, but I think when I got to the final of the US Open in '97, that's when I got more fully accepted by the public - by the tennis community, and by the non-tennis community."

Rusedski plans to stay in touch with both communities after his rackets have been consigned to the Wimbledon Museum. "I'd like to get involved with a little bit of television, and diversify in other areas, and work together with companies I've been associated with through sponsorship deals.

"I'd also like to stay involved in tennis and help with some of the youngsters coming up. It doesn't necessarily mean that I'm going to be a great coach when I quit. I could probably be the worst coach that ever lived, but I'll have had experiences." Of that there is no doubt.