A rare balanced article from the otherwise predictably kneejerk British press...
A complex character, but not a cheat, says the author who knows Greg Rusedski best
Sunday January 11, 2004
Greg Rusedski is a strange cove. The furrowed brow and dour countenance that confront an opponent on court gives way to a man we quickly dubbed 'Grinning Greg' as a result of his upbeat press conferences, which, until a succession of injuries forced him into a state of frustration and despair, zeroed in on life's brighter side with relentless banality.
But the situation Rusedski now finds himself in is neither bright nor banal. The young man who retraced his mother's steps across the Atlantic, clutching the British passport with which he was thoroughly entitled to seek glory under the British flag, faces a battle to save his reputation and his career.
The complicated nature of his case means that it is too early to condemn him as a drug cheat. Perhaps some of the tide of criticism will be stemmed, momentarily at least, by Rusedski's astonishing assertion that 'at least 47' samples provided by players on the ATP tour have been found to have higher than normal levels of nandrolone. The ATP got into trouble over precisely what their trainers had been handing out to players - contaminated drinks, apparently - last year and were forced to rescind a ban on the Czech player Bohdan Ulihrach and apologise to the rest of the locker room.
According to an ATP statement, subsequent to that, four players have been found to have abnormally high levels of nandrolone, but three were not high enough to break the International Olympic Committee threshold. Although the ATP insist that they cannot comment on individual cases, one can only assume that Rusedski was the odd man out. He has thus become, along with the former Australian Open champion Petr Korda, the best-known tennis player to test positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The first question many will ask is: would he have done it?
John Lloyd, who was Rusedski's coach on numerous Great Britain Davis Cup teams, is one of many who does not believe that he would. 'He's too much of a pro,' Lloyd said. 'It's so illogical. And, if you know him, you realise Greg is not a risk-taker. It's not his nature. Why would he want to jeopardise not only his career but all the things he wants to do in television afterwards? All that would go down the drain if he is proven guilty.'
Only last week, Rusedski's wife, Lucy, was talking about her desire to further her career in acting and on television. Her husband fancied he would have a presence on screen in future, too.
Rusedski's British fans, more numerous than one might imagine from the way some sections of the media treat Tim Henman as a demi-god and 'the Canadian' as an interloper, will be devastated to think that this man who has enabled British tennis to dream impossible dreams during the past nine years might be banished from the sport for as long as two years.
According to Rusedski, his fellow players have been very supportive. Many may not like Rusedski, a private figure on the circuit, but few would have considered him a candidate for drug abuse.
His unpopularity stems from a somewhat strange personality that doubtless springs from a sense of insecurity. Aloof for much of the time around fellow professionals, he occasionally comes up with a quip that is probably an attempt at humour but frequently falls flat. Unguarded comments in press conferences, particularly one suggesting that Pete Sampras was over the hill days before the greatest player of the decade won his fourteenth grand-slam title at the 2002 US Open, were ill-advised to say the least.
And Rusedski had only himself to blame for the bad reputation he earned for being mean with the people who coached him. Brian Teacher's reward for getting him to the US Open final in 1997 was the sack. And when Pat Cash offered to help on a 'let's see how it goes' basis, Rusedski flatly refused to pay Cash a cent after he realised that the people who could really help him put his body back together were the biomechanists Cash had brought to him - Brad Langevad and the expert physiotherapist Mark Bender. He was not overly generous with Langevad, either, although the Australian told me that working with such an innate professional brought its own rewards.
In contrast, the Dutch coach Sven Groenveld has remained a good friend after two stints with Rusedski. Much of the public criticism of Rusedski annoyed Groenveld when it appeared in the press. 'I can only go on my experiences,' Groenveld told me last year, 'and Greg has never been anything but great with me. When he won that million dollars at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich in 1999 there was nothing in the contract to say I should get a bonus yet he gave me a significant lump of money.'
Cash is still fuming over the way Rusedski treated him, but the fact is, to the public at large, Rusedski remains more popular than many in the insular British sports press would allow. As soon as news of his test came out last week he was described as 'a lantern-jawed Canadian oik', a 'Montreal moose' and a 'monosyllabic dope' in the Daily Mail, the newspaper that paid Zola Budd to 'become British'.
The doubters will point, with justification, to the similarities between Korda and Rusedski. When Korda tested positive a year after winning his only grand-slam title in Melbourne in 1998, he, too, was nearing the end of his career. Like Rusedski, 30, the Czech had struggled to keep his slender frame strong enough to deal with the pounding every player's body has to undergo on the physically demanding circuit. He was playing some of his best tennis and wanted it to continue. So he gambled with nandrolone and lost. Few players criticised Korda more harshly than Rusedski.
Rusedski's frustrations from injuries have been far more mentally debilitating than Korda's. An immensely ambitious player, described by the coach Tony Pickard - who worked with him one summer - as the most intensely focused player he had seen, he had every right to believe that he was on the threshold of something special at the beginning of 1999. Fifteen months earlier he had reached the US Open final and he completed a campaign that took him into the world's top 10 for the second successive year by outplaying Sampras in the final of the Paris Indoors - the title Henman won last November. Now, surely, he could achieve anything.
But would his body let him? An ankle sprain had forced him to retire in the first round at Wimbledon. The injury ruined his summer and more problems wrecked the grass and hardcourt sections of 1999 and 2000 as well. By the end of 2000, Rusedski's ranking had plummeted to 69 and, despite clawing his way back to 31, he has never cracked the top 20 again. He ended 2003 at 118.
The flame of ambition was not doused, though. It erupted all over the Centre Court in that memorable outburst of expletives in his match against Andy Roddick last summer after a distracting call from the crowd. It was a revealing loss of control from a man who was clearly at the end of his tether. Rusedski had never been a ranter or a raver on court and the incident showed just how mentally destabilised he had become by the endless need to recover from one injury after another, not to mention frequent operations.
So it is possible, having dispensed with most of his entourage, including his good friend and coach Groenveld for the second time, that he just threw caution to the wind and went for the easy but highly dangerous option? It is difficult to believe.
Rusedski's game may be eye-catching - based, as it is, around the world's fastest serve - but apart from enjoying a bit of London's celebrity nightlife with his wife, he lives an essentially conservative existence. Nothing has been allowed to get in the way of the job in hand - becoming the best tennis player he could be.
Where does the drive come from? From a very different well of inspiration than that used by Henman, a man with whom Rusedski shares so much and yet so little. How is it that two young men, born a year apart but on the same day in September, who randomly chose the same day to marry women called Lucy and who ended up as the only two world-class players Britain has had in 20 years, could be as different as Tim and Greg?
In looks, personality and background it would be difficult to find a single linking thread. Henman knows who he is, where he comes from, and what he wants; Rusedski has never seemed quite sure of who he is and where he comes from - but he does know what he wants. In a nutshell, they both want to win Wimbledon, but the awareness of that ambition came upon them at different times.
Henman, closeted in the security of a deeply embedded English middle-class background, had grandfathers and great grandmothers who had played at Wimbledon and the Centre Court was in his sights almost as soon as he could hold a racket.
Rusedski's family are from Ukraine. No security there; just the need on the part of his grandparents to escape the horrors of Stalin's cruel state so his mother could be born in Yorkshire before the migration continued west to Montreal. Once there, the young man grew up under the guidance of the Canadian Tennis Association, who were only too well aware that Rusedski possessed a British passport.
We talked about it in a sparsely furnished players' lounge in Beijing in 1993, the week after he had played so well against Michael Chang in Tokyo. It was obvious, from the way he served and dominated the net with his long reach, that this powerful left-hander had the perfect game to win Wimbledon.
But there would be a huge difference, I told him, between being a Canadian Wimbledon champion and a British Wimbledon champion. 'I know, but I have to think of the people who have helped me in Canada,' was his immediate reply.
I was not the only person to speak to him about the benefits of a career in Britain. For a start, he had already met Lucy and had won the first Challenger title of his career, in Newcastle. The land of his mother's birth was not foreign to him. But it was still a huge step to take - a step that was, in some ways, harder than that taken by the likes of Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, who were escaping to the United States from various forms of political oppression.
Rusedski threw himself wholeheartedly into the cause of British tennis in 1995, only once overstepping the mark with a silly union flag hat at Wimbledon. He learnt to put up with the fact that Henman was British 'through and through' and turned a deaf ear to 'Canadian' jibes.
In 2001, he saved Britain's bacon on the clay courts of Ecuador with a superb victory over Nicolas Lapentti in a Davis Cup relegation tie and five months ago tried to do the same in Morocco, but appeared to be at the end of the rope physically, if not mentally. Some wondered if he would ever play again.
But Rusedski was not going to give up the battle and obviously he has no intention of doing so now.
What they said
'I can't do anything if the fucking crowd calls it. It's absolutely fucking ridiculous. Replay the point. It's fucking ridiculous. Some wanker in the crowd changed the whole match and you allowed it to happen. Well done. Absolute shit'
Rusedski during his fourth-round defeat against Andy Roddick, Wimbledon 2003.
'I just look at my body like a car. I've had a few miles on me on the tennis court and I've had a little bit of a breakdown for eight months.'
Rusedski, 18 May 2003, explains his injury lay-off.
'If I had been paid a handsome guarantee to play in the tournament, then lost in the first round and only been involved in playing some social doubles, my conscience would have made me play an exhibition. I'm sad to say but it's another public relations error on Greg's behalf'
Tim Henman, November 2000, slams Rusedski for refusing to play in an exhibition match during the Samsung Open.
'Some days at the moment I could lose to my grandmother' Rusedski, 2 January 2001, after losing to Henman at the ATP Championship in Adelaide
Pat Cash: 'a lot of people warned me to be wary of Greg. I brought up the subject of money and Greg decided he didn't want me around. I'm disappointed but not surprised'
Pat Cash, the coach with whom Rusedski fell out, in April 2001
'You're ahead of your years. But it's strange because you don't necessarily learn the normal social skills like other people. You're probably not very good at being in large groups and you're quite one-dimensional because you have to present a certain image to the world. You're not allowed to make mistakes'
Rusedski, June 2001, on the rigours of growing up in the media spotlight.
'His issues have issues,' Sampras said of Rusedski. After Sampras lost the number-one ranking years ago, Rusedski had asked him what it was like to be the number-two player. Sampras was said to have shot back: 'what's it like to be the number-two player in your country?'
Pete Sampras during the 2002 US Open.
You've read the piece, now have your say. Email your comments, be as frank as you like, we can take it, to email@example.com
, or mail the Observer direct at firstname.lastname@example.org