True contests of quality make the heart pound

By Mike Rowbottom
Saturday 19 January 2002 01:00

I'm still in shock. You expected it from McEnroe and Connors. You expect it from the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and, in extremis, Goran Ivanisevic. But to see Greg Rusedski losing it with the umpire yesterday – genial Greg, the man who wore a Union Jack bandana at his first Wimbledon just to show willing to the British fans (no, it wasn't to remind himself that he had stopped being a Canadian) – as I say, to see the man with the broadest, easiest grin in the game transformed into a wild-eyed protester was startling.

From the television pictures, it looked as if Rusedki's impassioned claim that a shot from arch-rival Tim Henman at a crucial point in the second set had been out by a foot was wishful thinking.

But his performance thereafter – sarcastically applauding the decision as he stomped off court, throwing his towel to the ground and maintaining a withering inquisition of the man in the chair ("How can you miss that? It was this far out. Which match are you watching? You've embarrassed yourself.") – was clearly that of one believing himself grievously wronged.

That Rusedski is not a man given to such outbursts merely pointed out the genuinely stirring quality of this encounter.

In these days where every sporting contest is trumpeted, there is one certain test of quality. When you watch Audley Harrison feeding on ring fodder, or Aston Villa drawing 0-0 with Sunderland, or Hicham El Guerrouj breaking away from the Golden League pack to win by a finishing straight, you do not see it. When you watch something like Henman v Rusedski, and get a real glimpse of what it means to them, then you do. Your heart pumps.

Watching the conclusion of that second set in Melbourne yesterday, as Rusedski steamed towards the exit marked 'I Was Robbed', I stood with my arms folded. As Henman served out to 6-3, my right hand was being assailed from within my chest.

At such moments, no prompting to watch is necessary. It is impossible not to.

And when the heart-thumping begins, you are connected to all the other sporting moments that stirred you in similar fashion, as the field lines up for the Olympic 100 metres, or the ball is rolled forward to start the FA Cup final, or a golfer hunches over the three-foot putt which can bring him the Open.

There have been times when merely watching sport has left me feeling as if I've been taking part. I will never forget, for instance, the long, dull pain of watching Dave Bedford fail to win a medal in the 1972 Olympic 10,000 metres. While Bedford had to live with this frustration for a year, until he broke the world record at Crystal Palace, I was fortunate enough to be able to vent it immediately by hitting my little brother.

Football viewing, too, has prompted me to regrettable excesses of emotion. After Brazil beat England in the 1970 World Cup, I sportingly burnt all my pictures of Pele at the bottom of the garden. Take that!

But there is, I find, something peculiarly gripping about watching tennis when you are strongly identifying with one – or even both – of the players. Perhaps it has to do with there being a net, which provides the possibility of failure with every shot. Perhaps it is the fact that we are constantly watching action and then reaction from those on court.

One of the enduring fascinations with sport is the way it reveals character. It can tell you something about yourself, of course, as you fume in front of your television screen – all too often that you are small-minded, vindictive and partisan – but it can show the strengths and weaknesses of those taking part with unforgettable clarity.

The four-act drama which Britain's best tennis players enacted in the Rod Laver Arena yesterday offered us a glimpse of a champion's composure from Henman, who now looks capable of securing the championship.

But the drama resided with Rusedski, whose face and actions told the tale of the emotions boiling within him. He could hardly have offered a more convincing demonstration of his competitive intent had he taken off his shirt and cut the words '4 Real' into his arm.

Would Rusedski have reacted so intensely had the match not been against his Davis Cup team-mate, the man who – despite all the genuine admiration the former Canadian excites among the British tennis-viewing public – is generally regarded as the real Brit, or at least the more British Brit? It is hard to think so.

There is something exhilarating, and a little scary, about seeing such competitive intensity. Feel the beat – there's no mistaking it.

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