Wimbledon: Rusedski challenge depends on fitness

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REGULAR READERS of these pages with long memories might recall that in January your correspondent tipped Greg Rusedski to win Wimbledon as a postscript to a preview of the year's tennis. There was no escape clause, but the British No 1's damaged left ankle warrants a drastic revision of the prediction.

Rusedski, the fourth seed, declared himself fit to play yesterday, and his first-round match has been scheduled for tomorrow against Mark Draper, an Australian qualifier, ranked No 287 in the world (not to be confused with his younger brother, Scott, the winner at Queen's).

So where does that leave the intrepid pundits? Even if Rusedski's ankle holds firm, will he still have sufficient confidence and stamina for a campaign demanding seven victories over the best of five sets? Or will doubts erode his customary single-minded approach and leave him stranded short of the quarter-final place he achieved a year ago?

For Rusedski to be a viable contender for an honour denied to British representatives for 62 years, he needs to be sharper than at any time in his career, able to synchronise a mighty serve with crisp volleys, potent returns and punishing groundstrokes. He needs to be everything Richard Krajicek was when the Dutchman won the title in 1996.

As for the slice of luck all potential champions need along the way, Rusedski's seemed to disappear the moment his ankle turned as he ran to play a volley during the Stella Artois Championships 10 days ago. All in all, it would appear prudent to back Rusedski another year.

A less than 100 per cent Rusedski would leave Tim Henman as Britain's lone ranger as far as a serious challenge is concerned. Although the 23- year-old from Oxford advanced to the quarter-finals in each of the past two years, his recent form suggests he will do well to match that, let alone stretch himself over two further hurdles to ultimate glory.

Henman's opening match against the Czech Jiri Novak, scheduled third on Court No 1 today, might possibly coincide with live television coverage of England's World Cup match against Romania in Toulouse. The order of play committee decided it was only fair to allow Novak time to arrive after competing in the final of a clay-court Challenger tournament in Zagreb yesterday.

Rusedski is not the only player whose preparation has been hindered by injury. Krajicek has a sore left knee, Anna Kournikova is nursing a bruised right thumb, and although Martina Hingis was hitting the ball with gusto on the practice courts yesterday, the 17-year-old defending women's singles champion has experienced twinges in her right wrist.

Kournikova, who damaged her thumb in a fall towards the end of an impressive win against Steffi Graf at Eastbourne last Thursday, continues to have treatment. In common with Hingis, the 17-year-old Russian is not due to play until tomorrow.

Hingis first experienced pain in the wrist shortly before the French Open, taking the precaution of practising left-handed on two days in the lead-up to Paris. Acupuncture relieved the problem, but it recurred after playing basketball following a few days' inactivity. Hingis began practising at Wimbledon last Friday, and was smiling, as usual, yesterday.

When it became clear that Steffi Graf was succeeding in her race against time and aching limbs, Hingis was asked how the other players would react to having to play the seven-times champion on her favourite courts.

The Swiss world No 1 recounted that she was drawn against Graf on her first two visits to the All England Club after graduating from the juniors. On both occasions Graf won in straight sets on the Centre Court, in the first round in 1995 and in the fourth round in 1996.

"When I was told that I had been drawn to play Steffi Graf in my first- ever match on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, and I knew about it the Tuesday before the tournament started, I didn't want to go," Hingis said. "That's what it's like to be drawn against Steffi Graf at Wimbledon."

On this occasion, Hingis and Graf can only meet in the final. Hingis, the No 1 seed, is drawn in the same half as two of her teenaged rivals, Venus Williams and Kournikova and two frustrated former finalists of a certain age, Jana Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

Novotna was in splendid form in winning the Direct Line Insurance Championship at Eastbourne, defeating Sanchez Vicario in the final and not losing a set all week. It was astonishing to realise that this was the Czech serve and volleyer's first triumph in a grass-court tournament. Her Wimbledon prospects have soared, but doubts concerning the strength of her nerve on the big occasion persist.

Graf was on the verge of petulance over some of the line calls during her match against Kournikova at Eastbourne, but at least her mind was on something other than injuries. She is projected to exchange forehands with Mary Pierce in the fourth round and play her old foe Monica Seles in the quarter-finals.

If Graf is able to warm to her task free of pain in the early rounds, she is capable of building sufficient momentum to go all the way to an eighth title and leave Wimbledon with more cherished memories.

The very notion of a Brit winning the men's title shows just how open the event might be, particularly since Pete Sampras, the four-times champion, has not been his usual dominating self so far this year. Petr Korda, Pat Rafter, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and dear old Goran Ivanisevic are queuing up for the master's crown. As with Graf, however, Sampras's experience and class may tell.

Andre Agassi, back in contention after working hard to convince that he means business, made an interesting point about Sampras. "He's proven too much to me for me to think for one second that he's going to let things slip," the 1992 champion said. "He has no business to have no confidence. The guy's a great player. He can turn it on at the right time.

"If he doesn't post well at Wimbledon, then I'll say, `OK, something's a little off with him'. But the guy can go right back to Wimbledon and, hands down, win it."