Bruguera out to emulate Borg

TENNIS: The French Open begins on Monday. John Roberts looks at the main men
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The Independent Online
When Jacques Chirac resigned as the Mayor of Paris to become the President of France, he claimed to have "created more green spaces" in the city than anyone else during the past century. Of greater interest to a group of ambitious foreign visitors, however, are a collection of red spaces in the vicinity of the Bois de Boulogne.

Triumph on the clay courts of the French Open, which starts on Monday, would be a particular coup for Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras, No 1 and No 2 in the world respectively. Both Americans have an opportunity to complete a set of the four Grand Slam men's singles titles, a feat achieved by only Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson in the days before rubberised concrete courts became fashionable, when the French was the only major championships not played on grass.

The situation appeared less clouded in January - after Agassi had defeated Sampras in the final in Melbourne to add the Australian championship to his victory at the United States last September and his 1992 success at Wimbledon - than it is now.

Neither has impressed in lead-up tournaments in Europe. Agassi, an awesome counter-puncher, has admitted to "not knowing my ass from my elbow" when playing on clay last year, and Sampras, whose classical attacking style has brought him the Wimbledon title for the past two years, seems to have lost confidence since travelling without his coach, Tim Gullikson, who is receiving treatment for a brain tumour.

Clay, the sport's slowest surface, is as distinctive as grass, the fastest. Specialists slide their way through a demanding Continental season, prepared to pepper groundstrokes from the baseline for as long as it takes and frequently exhausting themselves in lesser events before arriving in Paris for the formidable challenge of seven matches played over the best of five sets.

The Austrian Thomas Muster, who has won his last 28 clay-court matches, including five titles this year, joked that the French Open comprises "96 Spanish in a 128 draw". But there is one Spaniard whose name can be expected to prey on the mind of every other contender.

Sergi Bruguera may be seeded No 7 but the man from Barcelona regards Stade Roland Garros as his spiritual home. He could become the first to win the title three times consecutively since Bjorn Borg, who completed four in a row (six in total) in 1981.

The one doubt about Bruguera, projected to meet Sampras in the quarter- finals, concerns his stamina. Two months of preparation were lost after his left knee was injured in February and, as he says, "On clay the first thing you have to be is a good fighter."

He betrays no sign of trepidation. "I am more relaxed than last year. I have done it two times, so if I lose this time it's because others play well, not that I can't handle the pressure."

Bruguera is the only player to have defeated Jim Courier at the French Open in the past four years, having ended the Floridan's own dream of a third consecutive title in the fifth set of the 1993 final and beaten him in four sets in last year's semi-finals. They could only meet in the final this time.

Courier, the former world No 1, appears to have recovered his equilibrium since experiencing periods of extreme self-doubt. He was disappointed to lose in the fifth set of an emotion-charged classic against Sampras in the quarter-finals in Australia.

Though seeded No 13, Courier has the game to cause considerable damage. The draw presents the possibility of a match against Muster in the quarters and Agassi in the semis, and Courier has developed a habit of putting American rivals down and out in Paris. Sampras was on course for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title last year until he met Courier for the first time on a clay court in the quarter-finals and lost to him in four sets.

Courier first won the title by beating Agassi in five sets in 1991, a year after the Las Vegan had lost the final in four sets against an ageing Andres Gomez, of Ecuador. Courier also defeated Agassi in three sets in the 1992 semi-finals and in four sets in the third round in 1989.

"Ironically," Agassi mused in Melbourne, "the one I haven't won yet is the one I felt I should have won first. I was favourite in both my finals, so that's a bit disappointing. I want it, I want it as bad as I can want a title."

Such craving is understood by Muster, who defeated a petulant Agassi in the second round last year, 7-5 in the fifth set. Muster's mastery of clay courts has not, so far, extended to the French Open, where he was defeated in straight sets by Gomez in the 1990 semi-finals.

The man in form - Bruguera was Muster's latest victim, beaten in four sets in the Italian Open final last Sunday - the Austrian left-hander distances himself from past disappointments by presenting himself as a dangerous outsider rather than the fifth-seeded contender.

While acknowledging that Agassi has changed for the better - "just the confidence makes him a class stronger than last year" - Muster still considers the No 1 to be beatable on clay; "that's definite. So is Pete, more likely than on any other surface."

Muster, perhaps weighing his own prospects along with those of Agassi and Sampras, warns of the perils of obsession. "So many top players have been running after the French title or the Wimbledon title or the US Open title and have never made it," he said. "The first week is going to show a lot."