WHEN Greg Rusedski arrived on these shores from Canada in 1995, there were some who said he had merely adopted a flag of convenience. That he had at best a temporary commitment to British tennis.
Eighteen summers later he is still here, and still working in the sport. That ‘temporary’ move is beginning to take on a suspiciously long-term look.
Now just a few months shy of his 40th birthday, Rusedski is as upbeat and enthusiastic as ever – perhaps one respect in which he has declined to go native. Then there is the accent: still recognisably North American to our ears, although inhabitants of his native Montreal might pick up its anglicised aspects.
But apart from those telltale signs of his origins, he has blended in pretty well. An ambassador and coach for the Lawn Tennis Association and a tireless promoter of the sport, he does commentary work for both Eurosport and Sky, competes in several events each year on the Champions Tour, and regularly takes part in exhibition matches.
This week Rusedski has been at Queen’s Club in London, working for Eurosport and paying particular attention to Andy Murray as the Scot gears up for another crack at Wimbledon. Next week he will be at Edinburgh Academicals rugby club in Edinburgh, renewing some old rivalries in the Brodies Champions of Tennis tournament.
“My life still revolves around tennis,” he says with little fear of contradiction. And although he always seemed to play with a smile on his face, perhaps he enjoys that life just a little bit more than when he was full-time on the ATP Tour, becoming world No 4 at one point.
Certainly, that enjoyment should be evident to spectators at the Edinburgh event, in which he and Mark Philippoussis will contest the first match next Thursday afternoon. The competitive instinct is undimmed, but the players know that winning is not the be-all and end-all that it once was.
“It’s not as cut-throat as on the main tour,” Rusedski explains. “You still want to win your matches, but you have to entertain as well. We’ll still be trying to win just the same, but we do recognise that there needs to be more interaction with the crowd.
“And we keep playing tennis because we love it. You play two sets then a championship tiebreak, and it’s a lot of fun. I still enjoy playing, and I still enjoy competing. How often I compete varies from year to year. I usually play two or three events on the Champions tour, and seniors at Wimbledon. Fabrice Santoro and I won the invitation doubles there last year, and we plan to defend our title this year.”
There was a time, immediately after his arrival from Canada, when Rusedski was looked on as a realistic prospect to win the main event at Wimbledon or one of the other majors. In 1997 he reached the quarter-finals at SW19, then a few months later got to the final of the US Open. He was 24, approaching his best years – then injury intervened.
“I had never won a single match at the US Open before when I went there in 1997 and reached the final,” he recalls. “I just got on a great roll all the way to the semis, then I beat Jonas Bjorkman in five sets then lost the final to Pat Rafter in four.
“Obviously I was disappointed at the loss, but it was still a magical moment for me – a magical time. It was an exciting and new experience, and I thought it was just the start.
“Then the following year I was seeded fourth for Wimbledon – my highest ever seeding there – but tore my ankle ligaments and had to retire in my first-round match. After that I never got myself physically to where I needed to be.”
He was still a more than useful player for almost a decade after that, but the grand slam records tell their own story: after that year of outstanding promise, he never got as far as a major quarter-final again. There were three fourth-round appearances in 1999, and two more in 2001 – the year he was knocked out of Wimbledon by eventual winner Goran Ivanisevic.
But from around the turn of the century, he was arguably at his best in a team setting. Along with Tim Henman, exactly a year his junior, Rusedski enjoyed some remarkable Davis Cup matches, and it was fitting that he should make his final bow in that competition as well. His only regret is that, with the Murray brothers coming through, he was unable to keep going as part of the team for a year or two longer.
“I retired in 2007, after a Davis Cup tie against the Netherlands. I think the team then was myself, Tim, Andy and Jamie. It was a pretty good team – three guys who were capable of winning pretty much any singles match, and Jamie who is a world-class doubles player. If we had had that team earlier in my career and Tim’s career we might have had a chance of winning the Davis Cup.
“But I’d had a few injuries, and my best tennis was behind me by then. So it was the right time to call it a day.”
Rusedski’s achievement of getting to a grand slam final was something that Henman was unable to match, and for many of us that was a cause for celebration. Like athletes Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe in the 1980s, the Henman-Rusedski rivalry was one in which you felt obliged to take sides, and for those who had favoured Ovett, Rusedski was the obvious man to choose.
Slightly built and black-haired, Coe and Henman looked alike and came from the same narrow middle-class niche of English society. Ovett and Rusedski, if not quite children of the ghetto, had a few rough edges to them.
In Rusedski’s case, the fact he was not born in Britain made him seem even more of an outsider from the tennis establishment. Henman’s grandfather and great-grandmother had both played at Wimbledon, and his parents were well known around the All England Club.
But the rivalry, while real enough for the players, possibly lacked the venom it had for their respective admirers. Now, certainly, Rusedski readily concedes that, in many respects, Henman was the more successful of the two.
“We always wanted to beat each other, and I think from 1997 to ’99 there was a close rivalry. But then I had my injuries, and after that I was playing catch-up.
“When we were playing together, in the Davis Cup, we were colleagues, team-mates, and worked together well. But the rest of the time we were rivals. Some people might have thought it was all about being the British No 1, but that wasn’t important to us. We both wanted to be the best player in the world, not just in this country.
“I think we both had very good careers, and we can be proud of what we achieved in tennis. Tim and I were chasing the same goals, and there was not a great friendship there. But there was mutual respect.”
Henman is also competing in Edinburgh next week, as is Ivanisevic. “Goran was my bogey man,” Rusedski remembers. “I finally beat him when he had a bad arm and he could hardly run.
“It was his destiny to win Wimbledon. He’d been in three finals and not won, and in the end he got through to another final in that magical year and beat Pat Rafter. He took us all down that year – beat me in the fourth round, then beat Tim in that semi-final that took three days. Goran was far too good a player never to have won a major. So I was delighted when he won Wimbledon.”
Henman reached six major semi-finals in all, including four at his home grand slam. But he never had a better chance of going a step further – or indeed of actually winning a title – than he did in that 2001 Wimbledon campaign. Ivanisevic was a wildcard: one of his injury-ravaged shoulders virtually held together by string, and his psyche supposedly as fragile. But he got rid of Rusedski in straight sets – a contest that some of us had sagely predicted would be too close to call – and after beating Henman went on to defeat Rafter in the final.
It was effectively the end of an era for British tennis, or at least for home hopes of seeing either Henman or Rusedski take the most coveted title of all. Henman reached the last four again the following year, but lost in straight sets to eventual winner Lleyton Hewitt. Rusedski, as we have seen, did not even get that close.
But if the early years of this century were seen as a period of mild decline for British tennis, better was to follow before either Henman or Rusedski hung up his racquet with the emergence of Andy Murray. Before then, Scotland was a tennis backwater, as it has been for almost the entire history of the sport; and it is a fair bet that when Rusedski came over from Canada in 1995 he would have been unable to name a single Scottish player. But, as he says: “It’s a lot different now. And it’s great that Andy won his first major last year at the US Open. It’s fantastic for tennis in Scotland, and for the whole of the UK as well.”
That US Open victory came after four defeats in grand slam finals, the last of which had been to Roger Federer at Wimbledon just months earlier. Murray looked devastated after that loss, and talked of needing a break from the game to recharge his batteries.
He did not need long. Just 28 days later he was back at Wimbledon facing Federer in the Olympic final, and this time he emerged victorious, winning the gold medal in straight sets.
That result has been credited with giving a vital lift to Murray’s spirits, and in preparing the way for his success at Flushing Meadows. So now the Scot has that first grand slam title in the bag, what does Rusedski think of his chances of making it two in the coming weeks?
“He’s got a great shot at Wimbledon this year, I think. I’ve seen him at Queen’s this week and he looks relaxed, comfortable, in good spirits. A rest like he’s had can do you good. So don’t be surprised if he goes all the way this year.
“The top four are still out on their own, but I think Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy have pulled clear of Federer a bit. No disrespect to Roger – he’s a marvellous player and people have written him off in the past only to be proved wrong – but I think he’s maybe just that little bit behind the other three, especially when you take into account the problems he’s had with his back.
“Obviously you don’t know how the draw is going to work out, and you have to be prepared for whatever it throws at you. But I think Andy will be happier to be in the same section of the draw as Roger rather than being up against Novak or Rafa.”
As a former player, Rusedski knows all about the pressures on home players at Wimbledon. As a TV and radio analyst, he can see those players live and assess the state of their game. In both respects, he thinks Murray is ready to win his home slam.
And then, with his third hat on – that of a tennis coach – he has his conclusion strengthened.
Since turning to coaching he believes he can see aspects of play that were invisible to him as a player, and in the case of Murray he believes that the Scot’s coach Ivan Lendl is performing that function: an extra pair of eyes, and the voice of greater experience too.
“The key for Andy has been hiring Ivan, and being able to draw on the experience of someone who has done it all in tennis. Like Andy, Ivan had got to several grand slam finals before eventually winning one, so he knows exactly what it takes. It’s very hard to argue with Ivan, because of his experience, when he tells you to do something. Also their sense of humour is very similar, so that helps them get on.
“Andy has had some great coaches in the past – for example Brad Gilbert did a great job of taking him into the top ten in the world. But Ivan has taken him that extra step.”
l For more information on next week’s event in Edinburgh, see www.championsoftennis.com.