Fracture forces out Ivanisevic: John Roberts reports from Melbourne on the injury that has put the Australian Open firmly in Pete Sampras's court

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The Independent Online
THE Australian championships, the 100th Grand Slam tournament of the open era, begins here today minus the Wimbledon men's singles finalists and one of the three show courts.

Goran Ivanisevic was forced to withdraw on the eve of the event when it was discovered that he a had a stress fracture to his right foot, an injury which may have been caused when the Croatian played a series of exhibition matches to raise money for children in his homeland. Bronchitis had already accounted for Andre Agassi, who defeated Ivanisevic at Wimbledon.

Also out of operation at the National Tennis Centre in Flinders Park is Court Two. Rain water seeped into the rubberised concrete, causing the surface to bubble after it had been cut for the installation of electronic line-calling equipment. Fortunately, the organisers had decided not to carry out similar work on other courts until Court Two had been tested, otherwise the tournament would be in disarray.

The experiment with the electronic system for comparison with the calls made by the judges has had to be postponed, and first- round matches due to feature on Court Two have been switched to the modest Court No 6. It is not certain that the show court can be repaired before the end of the championships.

Ivanisevic, who has yet to win a Grand Slam title, regrets not being around to test human or electronic eyes with the power of his game. 'I could play maybe a couple of rounds, but that is not good, because I came here to win the tournament,' the fifth seed said. 'It is disappointing, but I have to think for the future.'

The foot first began to trouble the 21-year-old Ivanisevic during the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last month, but the pain subsided after treatment, as it did when he competed in a tournament in Qatar the week before leaving for Australia. He arrived on Tuesday, and the injury worsened after each practice session. By Friday night he could barely walk.

'I saw three doctors, and the last one told me I should take six weeks off,' Ivanisevic said. 'I played a lot of exhibitions before the Grand Slam Cup, and maybe that was the start of the problem.'

Ivanisevic's coach, Bob Brett, the Australian who parted company with Boris Becker shortly after guiding the German to the title here in 1991, believes recovery could take up to 10 weeks. 'The important thing is to make sure Goran doesn't play again until he is ready,' Brett said.

On leaving Melbourne, Ivanisevic was due to defend a stack of computer ranking points he accumulated last year by finishing runner-up in Milan and winning in Stuttgart, where he defeated Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg and hit 105 aces in five matches.

Thomas Muster, of Austria, has been switched to Ivanisevic's position in the lower half of the draw, and the American Tommy Ho is promoted into the tournament as a 'lucky loser' from the pre-qualifying event.

Ivanisevic's absence has opened the draw for Pete Sampras, the third seed, who was projected to meet the Croatian in the quarter- finals and Edberg in the semis. Injuries caused Sampras to withdraw from the tournament in each of the past two years.

'Sampras is really looking forward to playing here,' Ivanisevic said. 'Pete is playing good and Stefan is not playing good. Boris Becker or Jim Courier, one of those two guys, will go to the final with Sampras.'

Becker, due to open today with a match against Anders Jarryd, the German's victim in the Wimbledon semi-finals on the way to becoming the youngest men's singles champion in 1985, appears to have rediscovered his zest for the sport, and with it his form. We are about to see if he can sustain the renaissance for two weeks of matches decided over the best of five sets.

Courier, the defending champion and world No 1, dominated the first half of last year and then appeared to lose confidence after his third-round defeat at Wimbledon by Andrei Olhovskiy, a Russian qualifier. Though the Floridan disappointed when losing to Sampras in the semi-finals of the United States Open, his groundstrokes are suited to the high bounces produced by synthetic courts.

Edberg has been perplexing of late. After displaying remarkable fortitude in rescuing his concluding three matches to successfully defend his US Open title in September, the Swedish world No 2 has laboured to convert match points in recent tournaments.

He reached the final here last year having just recovered from injuries, and though his coach, Tony Pickard, was scathing about his performance in losing in four sets to Courier ('The worst match I've ever seen him play'), Edberg is overdue an upturn in fortune on these courts.

In 1989, he had to withdraw with a back injury after defeating Pat Cash in the fourth round. In 1990, a torn stomach muscle caused him to retire in the final against Ivan Lendl, and in 1991 he lost to Lendl in the semi-finals after holding two match points.

Encouraging though it would be for one of the emerging talents to win a major - such as last year's semi-finalists, Richard Krajicek, who had to withdraw from his match against Courier because of an injured shoulder, and Wayne Ferreira, who was beaten by Edberg - Ivanisevic may have it right.

It is difficult to select a winner outside the leading contenders, and Sampras would make a stylish and popular new champion. Provided he is not troubled by sore shins, the 21-year-old American could add to his 1990 US Open title and at the same time perhaps supplant Courier as the world No 1.

Since the tournament moved to Flinders Park from Kooyong in 1988, the women's singles has been dominated by two players: three consecutive years of Steffi Graf, followed by two of Monica Seles.

Graf, who missed the event last year because of a bout of German measles, is regarded by many observers as the one player capable of taking the championship from Seles, who for the last two years has also held the French and US Open championships. It would be an intriguing final after their magnificent contest last June at the French Open, followed by Graf's sweeping success against a muffled Seles at Wimbledon.

Lurking in Graf's quarter of the draw is the 16-year-old Jennifer Capriati, who was so unhappy with life on the tour a year ago before being uplifted by her triumph at the Olympics. If it is still too soon for the American to advance to her first Grand Slam final, or even win her first Grand Slam title, we must hope for stirring deeds from Gabriela Sabatini, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and, perhaps, Jana Novotna.

The rain which ruined Court Two may have arrived in time to cool a sudden wave of intense heat. Temperatures pushing 40 degrees are not conducive to a pleasant tournament, and the theme music for the Channel 7 television coverage - 'Great Balls of Fire' - was becoming uncomfortably accurate.

(Photograph omitted)