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Former Yugoslav Water Polo Star Leading Americans - 2004-08-23

Olympic medal hopes are on the line when the men's water polo teams from United States and Serbia-Montenegro meet Monday night.

One could hardly have written a better script for this match-up - a Serbian coach trying to lead the United States water polo team in a crucial match against Serbia-Montenegro at the Olympic Games.

His name is Ratko Rudic and he became the head coach of the U.S. water polo team three years ago. He was born in Belgrade and was a gold medal player and coach for the former Yugoslavia. He guided Yugoslavia to Olympic final victories over the United States in 1984 and 1988.

He took over a without much experience. Ten of the Olympians from the 2000 Sydney games retired. But the Americans beat Serbia-Montenegro in the United States in early July, 11-10. Two weeks ago, Serbia-Montenegro turned the tables and won the championship game of the Belgrade Trophy Tournament, 5-4.

The team that wins Monday night's game advances out of group play.

So how does Coach Rudic view this Olympic match-up? "Serbia, along with Hungary, is one of the best teams in the world. If we play extremely well, we can do it. We will try, and in any case [we'll make it a good game]," he says.

Will it take one of the best games of his players' lives to win? "We can play very bad, and we can also play very, very well, so anything is possible. And they know. They know that we can do anything," he says.

Serbia-Montenegro is the ranked third-ranked men's water polo team in the world and was Olympic bronze medalist in 2000.

And how does U.S. Coach Ratko Rudic feel about facing, essentially, a team he used to play for and coach? "The have the best players in the world. They are playing professionally the best teams in the world. They get so much money for playing. They are strong. They are fast. They are good shooters. They are strong individually. So if we win, it will be a miracle," he says.

Hungary is in the same group as the United States and Serbia-Montenegro and is the only one of the 12 men's Olympic water polo teams that is unbeaten after four of the five scheduled group round-robin games.