Frana finds touch

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The Independent Online
AFTER the colourless final of the Stella Artois tournament a week ago, the other main pre-Wimbledon men's event came to a much more satisfying conclusion yesterday when Javier Frana of Argentina produced tennis of skill and style to beat Todd Woodbridge of Australia 7-6 6-3 and win the inaugural Nottingham Open.

The tournament deserved it - much more than it did the cold, grey, windy weather which had the crowd at the Nottingham Tennis Centre huddling together for warmth . The aim here was to create an egalitarian atmosphere, in which children could attend a tennis festival taking place alongside the main event and get the feel of a racket. During the week some 4,000 did so, and the general consensus is that the switch here from Manchester, where this event used to take place, has been a success.

The lesson Frana offered anyone who cared to study him closely was perhaps a little advanced, but no less pleasurable for that. As is the case with all his countrymen, clay was the surface he grew up on, but his coach realised there was enough pace in his game for him to thrive on faster surfaces and took him for special training on one of the few hard courts available.

The first time Frana stepped on to a grass court was at the Australian Open in 1987, where he surprised people by reaching the third round. An unorthodox tennis education had left him with an unusually rounded game, founded on spin, touch, use of angles, and the occasional explosion of power. It was heartening to see such a range of methods deployed in a context where mere crudity often wins.

Not that there was anything basic about Woodbridge, a compact doubles specialist who knows all about the importance of court craft. But he could not match Frana for variety and ingenuity and when things started to go against him he quickly lost his temper, at one point receiving a warning for lashing the ball into the back-court and forcing a linesman to take hasty avoiding action.

Frana is 28 and from Buenos Aires. A tall left-hander, he had won only two tournaments before this one in a career which nearly came to an end a year and a half ago when, on his 27th birthday - Christmas Day 1993 - he was diagnosed as having hepatitis. But after three months in bed he recovered well enough to work his way back towards the top of the game and when the latest world rankings are announced tomorrow will find himself somewhere in the 30s, the highest he has ever been.

Neither man had so powerful a serve that he could really dominate with it, and there were breaks in each of the first two games. After eight games of parity, Frana broke to lead 6-5 before squandering two set points and then being broken. But the tie-break was in Frana's grip from the outset and he made his third set point count when Woodbridge wafted a backhand wide, a shot which let him down time and again.

The second set was even until, at 2-3 on Woodbridge's serve, Frana played a brilliant game to make the decisive break. Two cross-court backhands, one delicate, one driven, and a forehand down the line demonstrated how well he could control the racket-head even at full stretch. There was no coming back for Woodbridge at that point, and he seemed to know it.

"The wind made it difficult to serve," Frana said. "Sometimes you lost your co-ordination. But I am playing very well this year." His recent marriage and the stability it had brought him after the trauma of his illness was a big factor in that, Frana said, and the pleasure Frana's wife Victoria took in her husband's victory was clearly evident.

Now for Wimbledon. "For me, it is one of the best tournaments," Frana said. He begins against Henri Leconte. That will definitely be worth watching.