Tennis: Players content to keep off the grass

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SUDDEN gusts brought clouds over the Foro Italico. The steamy temperatures dropped, and the Italian Open experienced its first deluge of the week. Yesterday's rain somehow seemed to symbolise the customary clay-court conspiracy against Wimbledon, coinciding as it did with the list of entries - and absenteeisms - for the championships in June.

Eight names are missing, including those of two former champions, the semi-retired Boris Becker, who may ask for a wild card, and his German compatriot Michael Stich, whose retirement seems permanent.

Two former French Open champions, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster, head the drop-outs. Bruguera, from Spain, has not appeared at the All England Club since 1994, when he featured in a classic contest against Australia's Pat Rafter. Muster, the Austrian former world No 1, has also been missing since 1994, sometimes controversially, and has failed to win a match in four appearances.

Carlos Costa, of Spain, who demonstrated his clay-court skills by eliminating Michael Chang in the quarter-finals yesterday, 6-2, 6-1, has not advanced beyond the second round at Wimbledon in five visits. He opts out along with the Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, a first-round loser on three occasions, and the Brazilian Fernando Meligeni, who failed to win a match on his only visit in 1994.

Alberto Berasategui's name leapt out of the list of entries until the Spaniard completed a rain-interrupted quarter-final victory against the New Zealander Brett Steven, 6-4, 6-2, and pointed out that his inclusion was an error. "Someone made a mistake and put me in the tournament, and I am not in the tournament," the Spaniard said. "Maybe next year." Berasategui has never played at Wimbledon and lost his only match on a grass-court, in Halle, Germany. He plays Costa in today's semi-finals.

"I think we should all go [to Wimbledon]," Berasategui said, "and I think the rule is going to change for 2000. But until the rule changes I prefer to play on clay, where I make most of my points. My game isn't suited to grass. Before I go to Wimbledon I want to be able to play the grass- court tournaments leading up to it." The rule change to which Berasategui refers is a plan to dock ranking points from players who fail to play in any of the four Grand Slams.

Gustavo Kuerten, the reigning French Open champion, intends to return to Wimbledon, where he lost in the first round last year, though he joked that he was going back to Brazil "probably in the second week of Wimbledon".

Kuerten, who advanced to today's semi-finals here with a 6-3, 6-4 win against Fernando Vicente, a Spanish qualifier, took time earlier in the week to pay his respects to AS Roma's Brazilian footballers, Cafu, Aldair, Paulo Sergio and Antonio Carlos, at the club's training ground.

He was amused to hear that when Ronaldo met the Pope, the Pope did not recognise the Brazilian striker. "It was a strange situation for Ronaldo," Kuerten said. "He probably met the only person who doesn't know him, but it's the way it is.''

Kuerten is superstitious about returning to Paris to defend his title. "I'll stay in the same hotel, probably eat at the same restaurants, hopefully practise on the same courts, drink the same water and take showers in the same showers.''

On this occasion, however, his outfits for Stade Roland Garros will be... well, if not exactly subdued, slightly toned down from the yellow and blue (shoes and all) creations he wore last year, prompting the President of the French Tennis Federation, Christian Bimes, to comment, "We don't want these guys dressing like soccer players.''

Kuerten intends to wear yellow shirts with black or blue shorts, but the bright blue shoes are out. "I have to change the way I dress, so if I don't win, that will be the reason!"