There is nothing to suggest rebellion in Greg Rusedski's polite how-ya-doin' manner; no hint of prima donna behavior from an athlete whose sport has bequeathed the world so many brats. As a dozen or so tennis writers cluster around, he reclines on a plastic chair and disarms everyone by uncoiling a smile big enough to match his six-foot, three-inch body. Outside, a cold English rain is washing out the finals of the Beckenham Open, the annual June kickoff to England's grass-court tennis season. So the barracudas from the British tabloids need something else to write about - and the 21-year-old Rusedski is it. He is currently the hottest story in British tennis, and it all has to do with a move that Rusedski calls simply "a lifestyle decision," but that left a swirl of hoopla, cattiness and venom in its wake. Andre Agassi can make headlines by changing his hairstyle or his celebrity girlfriends. Rusedski did so by swapping his nationality.
Last month, the Montreal native was given permission by the International Tennis Federation to leave Canada to play for Britain, where his girlfriend, Lucy Connor, lives and his mother was born. With that, Canada may have lost its best men's singles player ever, a power-hitting left-hander whose screaming serve once pushed the radar gun to 137 m.p.h., the fastest on the books. Some observers say Rusedski, who was ranked 47th in the world with two tournament victories when he jumped, has the potential to be a top 20 player. And acquiring the world's 47th-ranked tennis player passes for a coup in Britain these days, given the country's spiralling descent towards the basement ranks of tennis nations. In Wimbledon, which begins June 26, the country still hosts the world's première event, but the last Brit to win the tournament was the late Fred Perry, and he did it in 1936 - in long white pants. As Rusedski prepares to step onto the shaved Wimbledon lawns to compete under the Union Jack, his ranking has already made him the number 1 player in his new country, and the latest in a long, so far unsatisfying, line of "great British hopes."
If that prospect makes him nervous, Rusedski is not showing it. He has been sure to push all the right public relations buttons since his arrival, which was marred when some of his new British teammates hid the welcome mat. "All of us feel he shouldn't become British," declared Mark Petchey, Britain's number 3 player. In his first London news conference just days after the announcement, Rusedski said, "I feel British at heart" - and pledged to work with community programs to develop junior tennis and to play for Britain's much-maligned Davis Cup team. "My mother always said, 'Go where your heart tells you,' and for me, that's here." By last week, he was even more sure of his place. "I am British," he told the reporters assembled at Beckenham who wanted to know if his commitment was real. He then proved it by deftly fielding a few questions about British soccer and cricket, as if he were dispatching easy volleys past so many weekend hackers.
There will be no soft lobs in Canada. Rusedski's defection left more anger than sorrow behind. "If he felt so strongly that he was British, he shouldn't have accepted anything from us," complained Robert Bettauer, Tennis Canada's director of player development. (Rusedski paid back a $37,500 grant to Tennis Canada last December to "clear the decks" for his decision, as he put it.) "We believe he left for financial reasons, and a lot of people are bitter about that," said Louis Cayer, Canada's Davis Cup men's team captain who first saw Rusedski play as an eight-year-old. Despite coaching Rusedski on and off ever since, Cayer was never able to convince his protégé to play for Canada's Davis Cup team. "Greg is a product of the Canadian system, and when it's Davis Cup time, it's time to play for your country," said a frustrated Cayer. "My values, my patriotism, make it hard to understand his behavior."
So far, Rusedski has not spoken to Cayer or anyone else at Tennis Canada about his decision to trade passports. And he initially turned down all Canadian requests for interviews. "He's gun-shy," said his London-based agent Jan Felgate. But over a pot of tea in a pizza joint on Wimbledon's main street after practice one day last week, he relented in order to respond to his critics. "It's only normal that people are upset, but Louis shouldn't take it so personally," Rusedski told Maclean's. "My girlfriend is here, and this is going to be my home," he said, as his tongue swirled over his lips in the same nervous habit he displays on the court. "I love it here." And he pointed out that the almost-constant travel in professional tennis, which makes residences little more than a post-office box for most players, has diminished his sense of home. "I've been travelling the world full-time since I was 16, living out of a suitcase for most of my teenage years, so I've seen more of the world than others," he said. Rusedski has spent so little time in Canada that he cannot even remember the last time he saw snow.
But if he will only discuss the personal reasons for his decision, everyone else is talking about money - or rather, the lack of it available to Canadian tennis players. In Britain, endorsement opportunities await the top player, which augers well for an athlete as affable and handsome as Rusedski. The previous number 1, Jeremy Bates, has earned "a very good living," say British Lawn Tennis Association officials, despite never rising higher than 63rd in the world (an explanation, perhaps, for Petchey's hostility to Rusedski's arrival under a passport of convenience just as the 33-year-old Bates approaches retirement). But Rusedski had been largely unsuccessful at generating corporate sponsorship in Canada. "Unless you're a hockey player in Canada, you're not going to get people beating a path to your door with endorsements," says Cliff Minshull, the former director of sponsorship relations at Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco Ltd., which sponsors the du Maurier Ltd. Open.
Rusedski was 13 when he was introduced to Imperial Tobacco's former president Paul Paré, who invited the promising youngster down to his country home in Quebec's Eastern Townships for some weekend doubles. "Mr. Paré played every point like it was the Wimbledon final," remembers Rusedski. But although an equally impressed Paré spent some of his own money on Rusedski's development, and leaned on acquaintances for more, the deep corporate backing needed to cover Rusedski's annual $200,000 coaching and travel costs never materialized. "Here is a nice young man - so rare in the tennis world - and we put together an attractive sales brochure that we mailed to hundreds of Canadian companies asking them if they wanted to discuss an affiliation," said Minshull. "We didn't turn up a thing. It was very discouraging. When we told Greg, he was hurt. He just said, 'Wow.' "
Instead, the Rusedski family shouldered much of the financial burden of Greg's career. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion about Greg's decision, but people do not know what the family has gone through to achieve his status," said his father Tom Rusedski, who managed Greg's career alone until the player enlisted with the International Management Group two years ago. In the early years, the family staged its own fund-raising dinners at local tennis clubs to raise a few thousand dollars to pay for coaches ("I know people who now ask: 'I participated in one of those benefit dinners. Will I get my money back now that he's not playing for Canada?' " said Cayer last week.) "My father had a passion for tennis," recalled Rusedski. "My parents were normal middle-class people, and they took out loans for me to play. They would not even tell me about the financial end. They have always encouraged me to have fun with tennis, to make it an adventure. I'm not sure that, had I been in their situation, I could have been as selfless."
But the Rusedskis' determination to run Greg's career their own way created tension with Tennis Canada. Rusedski never played on Canada's Davis Cup teams, unwilling to take time away from the chase for crucial - and profitable - ranking points on the international tour. "Tom made a lot of good decisions, but he started to look down on Tennis Canada because he was developing a better player than we ever did," said Cayer. "I'm sure they don't feel they owe anything to anyone." Such lingering bitterness suggests that Rusedski's return to Montreal to play the Canadian Open this August will be testy. "Yeah, I'm going to show up in Montreal," said Rusedski with another big smile. "I don't expect they'll greet me with cheers and chants. I'll probably get booed out of existence. But it should be entertaining."
"Should be entertaining" was Rusedski's reaction to hearing that he had drawn Petchey, of all people, to be his first opponent as a British subject. Last week's tournament at The Queen's Club was another Wimbledon tune-up, played on grass, and centre court was three-quarters full for Rusedski's debut. The crowd remained politely neutral throughout. But on a cold, dull afternoon more appropriate for a Grey Cup game than tennis, Rusedski never got his showcase serve untracked. Early in the third set, a fired-up Petchey broke Rusedski's serve and went on to win the match. At a crowded news conference afterwards, knowing that he had not played well, Rusedski remained extraordinarily gracious in defeat. That seemed to satisfy the media contingent, which usually spends its time knocking the sad state of British tennis. But the honeymoon may not last. Grace in defeat is not what they are expecting in the long run from their latest great British hope.
Maclean's June 26, 1995