OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Tennis: Grievances rise to the surface: The seeds in the men's tennis have been feeling the heat. Guy Hodgson reports

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WHEN Boris Becker said that the heat in Vall D'Hebron could kill someone he was exaggerating only a little. Sir Alec Guinness would gladly go back to his sweat box in Bridge Over The River Kwai in preference to a five-setter at the Olympic tennis venue.

Temperatures have nudged 115F on the Centre Court while the humidity is so great that even pushing a pen runs the risk of extreme dehydration by perspiration. Becker said he had lost nearly a stone in his five-hour match with Christian Ruud last week and everyone was too busy looking for a sauna to cool down in to argue.

But if Vall D'Hebron in August has proved an inhospitable place for tennis in Barcelona, no set of people has felt more uncomfortable than the male elite of the racket and net set. The tournament began with eight of the world's top 10 but by yesterday, when the singles had been whittled down to the last six, only Goran Ivanisevic remained. The seeds had been swatted like flies.

Whereas the women's tournament has gone precisely to plan with the top four filling the semi- final places, the men's has been an orgy of surprises to the extent that, if it had been mirrored in the swimming pool, Britain could now be weighed down with gold instead of holding an inquiry into what went wrong.

The two quarter-finals yesterday - Leonardo Lavalle versus Jordi Arrese and Jaime Oncins versus Andrei Cherkasov - are the sort you would expect to see in a build-up event to a Grand Slam such as the pre-Wimbledon Manchester tournament.

Quite why the underdog has been armed with such sharp teeth this fortnight is a mystery that is exercising a few minds. The seeds, ever anxious to pass the buck, have pinpointed the court. Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, claimed the surface was the slowest he had ever experienced and stopped only just short of accusing the Spanish authorities of cheating.

'They have made it as slow as possible,' he said. 'It is always like this for the Davis Cup. Every country wants to provide the surface that suits their players. But for the Olympics the International Tennis Federation should make sure it's the same for everyone. There's no chance that a serve and volleyer will win here.'

Even Michael Chang, who has such an aversion to grass you suspect he would be loth to let horses feed on it, was less than happy, describing it as 'like playing on chocolate powder'. Yet while the pace is almost slow enough to allow players to towel down between shots, there could be another, less palatable, reason for the top players to chew over.

One of the persistent criticisms of tennis's appearance here is that its affluence and abundance of other great titles is at odds with other, less endowed, sports that regard the Olympics as a four-year pinnacle. Wimbledon and the three other Grand Slams are goals enough, the argument goes. For Jim Courier or Stefan Edberg, the Games are just a more meaningful diversion than another highly moneyed but highly insignificant tournament in Florida.

Below these Grand Slam contenders, however, there is the majority for whom pursuing a gold medal on behalf of their country is an aspiration high above their norm. They do not get the chance to play in the more exalted levels of the Davis Cup and they have no greater prospect of progressing, at say Wimbledon or Roland Garros, than the early rounds. They crave an Olympic medal; they would grapple like street fighters to get one.

Marc Rosset was exploding with pride when he secured at least a bronze for Switzerland. 'I thought I might get a medal in the doubles,' he said. 'but I never dreamed of winning one in the singles.' Rosset, to date has disposed of three seeds - Jim Courier (No 1), Wayne Ferreira (9) and Emilio Sanchez (12) - and although all the victims have been overtly distressed at their defeat it was clear that Rosset was the hungrier, better prepared, player.

And it is also probably no coincidence that the one surviving player from the world's top four is Ivanisevic, who was nearly in tears when he was asked to carry Croatia's flag in the opening ceremony and definitely will be if he becomes his country's first gold medallist in history on Saturday. Not normally renowned for cerebral toughness, this tournament he has become the first player in the open era to win four successive five-set matches.

Even yesterday, Arrese's match with Lavalle was an expression of patriotism more than a game of tennis. Barcelona-born, he was carried along on a wave of dozens of Catalan flags to a 6-1, 7-6, 6-1 victory over Lavalle in 2hr 51min. 'I did it for Catalonia,' he said somewhat predictably but more refreshing than referring to his victory in terms of ranking points.

The top players may have missed the point. They might, only half tongue in cheek, refer to this tournament as the Barcelona Open, but others have placed a true value on it.

There have been rumours this week that the American tennis players billeted in the Athletes' Village have been sneaking out at night to sleep in five star hotels. It could be that a genuine Olympic spirit has been creeping through the gates in the opposite direction.

(Photograph omitted)

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