Next stop: a bite at the Big Apple

Eyes will be keenly trained on Richard Krajicek at Flushing Meadow. John Roberts sizes up the Wimbledon champion
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The Independent Online
The only time the United States championships went Dutch was in 1968, the first year of open tennis. The American Arthur Ashe defeated Tom Okker for the men's singles title, but the runner-up returned to Amsterdam with the $14,000 prize money.

Ashe received only $280 in expenses because he was still an amateur, a second lieutenant in the US Army, "happy to be able to make the payments on my beloved Ford Mustang".

Until six weeks ago, Okker remained the only Dutchman ever to play in a Grand Slam singles final. Then along came Richard Krajicek with a breathtaking triumph at Wimbledon, where he was not even seeded.

The question now is whether the 24-year-old from Rotterdam can go one better than Okker at the US Open, which starts next Monday. Or at least that is one of the questions.

"Who is the more popular Dutchman now in the Netherlands between yourself and the actor Jean Claude Van Damme?" an American reporter wanted to know.

"Oh, he is Belgian, Jean Claude Van Damme," Krajicek pointed out gently.

The reporter apologised and explained that on visiting Amsterdam he had seen a huge billboard portraying the martial arts star. "He is from just south of Holland," Krajicek said helpfully. "I think, compared to actors, there is no comparison, no matter which actors you take. They are much more famous and much more of a celebrity. But I haven't been in Holland, so I have no idea."

Based in Monte Carlo, like so many of his fellow professionals, Krajicek will be able to gauge the impact of his success first hand only when he returns to his birthplace "for a few functions" after finishing his business at the US Open.

After Wimbledon, he put his rackets away for a fortnight and took his customary break in the Austrian village of Ramsau Dachstein, near Salzburg. "In a way, Wimbledon mucked things up for me a little bit, because I had such a short time for the holidays," he teased. "I first went to Austria two years ago, after my knee problems. The doctor advised me to go cross- country skiing twice a year. I also do a lot of running and cycling. Sometimes I am a little bit sick of tennis, and working out in Austria is one of the best holidays I can get."

He elected to miss the Olympic Games in Atlanta. "I thought my schedule was too crowded. Three weeks between Wimbledon and my next event was the minimum. Maybe if the Olympics had been one week later there would have been a good chance."

The 6ft 5in Krajicek did not exactly go unnoticed back home even before he fulfilled his potential at Wimbledon. "When I play in Holland I think I get a little bit close to what Andre Agassi has every week," he said. "I am pretty popular with the kids in Holland."

While grateful for his talent and the rewards it brings - pounds 392,500 for winning Wimbledon boosted his career prize money to pounds 3.1m - Krajicek does not crave attention. "For one week I can handle it fine, but to have it all the time must be so tiring, and it's tough to be nice to everybody. So in that sense I don't really envy Agassi, I guess."

He savoured his accomplishment at Wimbledon during a contemplative moment in a crowded room. "When I was at the champions' dinner on the Sunday evening and the trophy was in front of me and my name was already written on it, the feeling I had was unbelievable. It was great to read the names - Bjorn Borg five times in a row, Pete Sampras three times in a row. They are people of a higher level, but it's like you are part of them, and that's a pretty nice feeling."

Krajicek's straight-sets victory against Sampras in the quarter-finals ended the world No 1's prospects of becoming the first since Borg to win the title four times consecutively.

Sampras is among the players who have won both Wimbledon and the US Open singles titles in the same season. He succeeded twice, last year and in 1993. Krajicek, however, might also take note that Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and John Newcombe all experienced the indignity of following a triumph at the All England Club with a first-round disaster in New York.

Krajicek has so far advanced to the fourth round on two of his five visits to the rubberised concrete courts at Flushing Meadow, New York. In 1992, he led Edberg, the eventual champion, by two sets to one and was a break up in the fifth set, the Swede recovering to win 6-4. A year later, at the same stage, Krajicek was defeated in four sets by the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev.

Last year, the Dutchman reached the third round, where he lost to the Australian Michael Tebbutt in a fifth-set tie-break.

"The weather can be so tough at the US Open," Krajicek said, recalling lengthy matches in heat and humidity. "At Wimbledon, the grass is a tough surface to play on. At the US Open, the big difficulty is that you have to be in good shape. You can lose to the weather, basically."

He is determined to build on the Wimbledon experience. "I should enjoy the feeling of being Wimbledon champion. I don't see it as a burden."

Sampras reserves judgement. "We'll see over the year and the years how he responds to being a Wimbledon champion," he said. "Everybody is going to be kind of shooting after him.

"Richard has always had a very big game, a very big serve. When he gets hot, he's very difficult. When he's not playing well and he's not healthy, then he's a little bit more vulnerable. I've played him a number of times and he's always given me problems."

Sampras needs to make a successful defence of the championship if he is to avoid finishing a year without a Grand Slam title to his name for the first time since 1992.

"It's been a strange year," he mused, "especially in the majors. There have been a lot of upsets and it seems like a lot of guys have stepped up, Kafelnikov winning in Paris and Krajicek winning at Wimbledon."

The surprises could continue, although Krajicek fancies that Sampras and Agassi will be difficult to shift on home territory. It might be expecting too much for the Dutchman to snatch the record $600,000 prize from under American noses, even in New Amsterdam.

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