OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Madagascar's finest hour: Tennis

IT could have been any tennis tournament anywhere in the world. Boris Becker was on Centre Court, Jim Courier was due on next on Court One. Then two teenage girls emerged shyly from out of the Val d'Hebron centre. They looked like autograph hunters; instead they were reminders of why the Olympic flame was burning close by.

Dally and Natacha Randriantefy will not win a gold medal in Barcelona, indeed they will have exceeded all expectation if they win a match at all. But they shared a common thread with Becker and Steffi Graf yesterday, equals until the moment play got under way.

Dally, 15, is ranked 774th in the world, while her 14-year-old sister has not played at a sufficiently high level to merit even a four-figure number. 'Natacha Randriantefy has not played in any professional tournaments' was the sole biographical detail the tennis computer could find about Madagascar's second-best player.

Normally, the sisters would have next to no chance of holding court with their betters and they are in Barcelona as part of their country's 12-strong team only because Madagascar businessmen paid the bill. They may play the same game as the millionaires of the tennis tour, but they do not share the same world. Except at the Games.

Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, winners of five Grand Slam tournaments between them, are staying in the Olympic Village with the rest of the United States team. Their daily allowance is dollars 10 (pounds 5.25), the sort of sum they tip the porter at the luxury hotels they normally frequent on the ATP Tour.

'It's wonderful,' Courier said of his life in the village. 'Where else can you look out of a window and see so many fantastic sportsmen? My only problem is I get pestered by the other athletes for autographs.'

No doubt the Randriantefy sisters would like to be among them, if they could summon the courage to ask. 'Just seeing people like Steffi Graf is fantastic,' Dally said, her eyes following Courier as he walked past. 'My great memory I will take from Barcelona will be meeting her. That and the opening ceremony.

'Tennis is not popular in Madagascar. Everyone likes to watch football and basketball, but my sport no. It's very expensive to play.'

She was speaking after being beaten by Canada's Patricia Hy in a match that lasted only 55 minutes and in which she gained only six game points in a 6-2 6-1 defeat. 'I should have won a few more games but I was very nervous,' she said. Natacha lasted even less time, going down 6-0, 6-1 to Helena Sukova, of Czechoslovakia.

Their competitive stay in Barcelona threatens to be a short one as the doubles does not offer much hope either, having drawn the top seeds, Spain's Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, in the first round. But if the sisters were disappointed, they did not show it. They were drinking in the Olympic spirit as relentlessly as Becker seemed to be letting the cup go by.

Two sets to one down against Christian Ruud, of Norway, he was grumpy and disgusted with himself. His racket was discarded with distaste at change-overs, and he persistently berated himself until grasping something of his normal form to win 3-6, 7-6, 5-7 7-6, 6-3 in just under five hours.

Appearances can be deceptive, but it is the Olympics, and to Becker it looked like it was just another match.

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