| Greg Rusedski reacts after losing a point against Andy Roddick Wednesday
The only stunning volley British tennis could manage Wednesday was one of abuse. On his way to an especially abject defeat on Centre Court, Greg Rusedski let rip at the umpire with a tirade that made the John McEnroe of old sound like a cub scout. Rusedski’s toxic eruption, broadcast live by the BBC, concealed a deeper shame. Three days into the Wimbledon fortnight, Tim Henman is on his own.
So now we know why they call it the singles. Henman is loneliness personified. The elimination of Rusedski and Lee Childs left the British No. 1 to carry what’s left of the Union Jack through an event that was last won by a local player 67 years ago (Fred Perry, in 1936). Childs was swept away by Rafael Nadal, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 and Rusedski lost 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (1-7), 5-7 to 20-year-old Andy Roddick, the new tournament favourite.
Compared to the women, Henman is leading a golden age. For the first time in the Open era (35 years in all), no female from these islands made it as far as the second round. Humiliation bites at the soul of British tennis.
In most years, the garden party spirit soothes the pain of defeat. But this summer the sport that was meant to sustain itself on Wimbledon’s profits can hardly raise its head. Henman himself is having trouble lifting his injured shoulder. Nobody can rightly expect him to singlehandedly raise the game he so stoically represents from the bottom of the tank.
Rusedski has added a new dimension: gracelessness under pressure. In a single spasm of ill-temper and self-pity, he gave a BBC audience a crash course in dockyard terminology and wrecked his own promising counter-attack after he had lost two tie-breaks. The British No. 2 was 5-2 up with a break of serve in the third set when an excitable spectator called “out” on a baseline drive from Roddick.
Rusedski played on, lost the point, lost the game and then rounded on the umpire, saying: “I can’t do anything if the crowd f****** calls it.” Four more expletives burst into the country’s living rooms before Rusedski went back to work in tatters and lost four more games to surrender the third set.
A popular accusation is that Henman and Rusedski are short on natural aggression. When the demon finally seized control of the former Canadian, it spoke not through his racket but his mouth, which most casual Wimbledon watchers associate with an ingratiating grin.
“We all make mistakes. Mine’s in front of the television, yours is behind closed doors,” Rusedski told a press conference last night. “I apologise for my language. It was not necessary, I would say. These things happen. It’s emotions, and wanting it so badly.”
Though he comes from Omaha, Nebraska, Roddick has all the makings of a character from Scott Fitzgerald. He is all American potency and self-assurance. Cursed with a temper himself, he was not inclined to drive the knife into his beaten opponent, who now faces a fine (he was later handed out a lenient $ 2,500 fine).
Roddick said: “There were a couple of kids who were pretty rowdy throughout the match – and I would guess the [false] call came from them. Maybe he did let it get away from him mentally – but I still had to play the shots.
“I can relate to Greg a little bit in that sense, but I wasn’t focusing on what was going on. I knew he was going to be a little mad. I was trying to ignore it and focus on what I was trying to do. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been in the heat of the moment.”
It’s no longer possible to sustain the illusion that Rusedski has the necessary tenacity of spirit to match his dexterity at the net and his bullet serve.
Again, Wednesday, we watched him match a more illustrious opponentin the opening set before losing his way psychologically. With Rusedski, there has always been the sense that he hopes but never expects to win. His implosion in the second-set tie-break, which he lost 1-7, had the bugler sounding The Last Post. He will be 30 when he next walks through the gates of the All-England club.
For the home team to be reduced to one inside 72 hours is beyond even our self-deprecating humour. The jokes run dry. This, in a country that produced 35 Wimbledon champions in the years up to Fred Perry’s last conquest.
Rusedski, remember, assumed British citizenship so he could be a big fish in a small pond. A small fish in a puddle is how he stands this morning.
Without Henman now, we could sweep up British tennis with a dustpan and brush.