Rennis / Australian Open: Courier has one more river to cross: Edberg prepares to bridge the gap as the two leading men meet for the first time since last year's final

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WHEN Jim Courier was asked whether he would repeat his dip in the polluted Yarra River if he successfully defends the Australian Open title against Stefan Edberg here tomorrow, he said: 'We will cross that bridge when we get to it.'

While the humour may have been unconscious, both players are well aware that a lot of the Yarra has flowed under the bridge since they contested the final here a year ago.

Shortly after his triumph, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, Courier supplanted Edberg as the world No 1. He also went on successfully to defend the French Open title in June. Since then, nothing.

Edberg, who had been out of the game for two months with injuries before arriving here last January, continued to struggle for form until the United States Open. He then recovered from being a break down in the fifth set of three consecutive matches before successfully defending the title, defeating Pete Sampras in four sets in the final.

This victory also enabled Edberg to restore himself briefly to No 1, though fluctuating fortunes on the ATP Tour later persuading the computer that Courier was the top man.

The pair have not met on a court since leaving Flinders Park a year ago, and the 27-year-old Edberg, with six Grand Slam titles from 10 finals, is happy to describe himself as the underdog as he prepares to face the 22-year-old American, who has won three majors in four finals.

This has nothing to do with Edberg's dodgy back, which rapidly became the envy of all his rivals as he completed his progress to the final with three consecutive straight-set victories, the latest against Sampras in the semi-finals yesterday, 7-6, 6-3, 7-6.

It is simply how the Swede perceives the situation: 'The last time we played, he was the underdog. This year it will be a little bit different. I will be the underdog. He is the No 1 player and he is the defending champion, but if I can play as well as I have done in the last couple of matches, then I can give him a good match.'

Edberg was considered to have the edge on the Floridan a year ago, not simply because of ranking, but because of the way he had demolished him, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, at the United States Open the previous September, in one of the finest displays imaginable in a major final.

The contrast between the match in New York and the one in Melbourne was huge, defying conclusions in relation to tomorrow's final. What can be said is that Courier was the fitter, stronger player in their last match, and if this proves to be the case on this occasion, there can again be only one winner.

When Edberg experienced a spasm in his lower back a week ago, both he and his coach, Tony Pickard, feared more of the ill-luck which has followed them to the tournament since it was moved to Flinders Park from Kooyong in 1988.

'We could have been back in Europe by now,' Edberg said, delighted with the way the injury had reponded to treatment. He continues to wear a body belt, though the reason may be psychological rather than medical. 'I have no pain, and I feel pretty much normal now,' Edberg said. 'I feel that I am moving well again. I still keep it on for support, but it is a little bit of a mental thing, too.'

If the Edberg camp is looking for an omen, the back problem surfaced towards the end of a difficult third-round match against Amos Mansdorf, of Israel. It was Mansdorf who taxed the Swede over five sets on the middle Saturday at the All England Club in 1990, when Edberg last won the Wimbledon title.

Both Edberg and Courier won their quarter-final and semi-final matches in straight sets, the first time this has occurred in a Grand Slam tournament since the 1977 US Open.

Sampras, who had been fancied to add to his 1990 US Open title, was a disappointment in a strange match with Edberg. The American led 4-0 in the opening set and 5-2 in the third set, but was unable to press his advantage.

It became clear when he was ahead in the third set that his sore shins were more of a problem than Edberg's back, though Sampras tried not to make this an excuse. 'I really didn't serve well,' he said. 'I think that was the bottom line today.'

Sampras was reminded of his defeat by Edberg in last year's US Open final. 'Maybe it was experience, I don't know, but just when he needs that first serve and he needs that big point he seeems to get it, and I seem to struggle a little bit. I think that's the difference between us.'

Edberg served reliably, in spite of being foot-faulted 11 times, and he displayed a rare flash of temper, swiping the ball into the net after being broken for 3-1 in the third set. 'I got a little bit irritated with myself,' he said, 'because I knew he was struggling with his movement and I hit serves right into his hitting streak and he got a little bit of hope.'

Courier has not dropped a set, and his 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 win against Germany's Michael Stich, the No 14 seed, was virtually sealed in the tie-break. After recovering from 0-5, the former Wimbledon champion steered a forehand volley into the net to lose the shoot-out, 7-4.

'The result looks a far easier match for him than it was,' Stich said. 'He played the important points very well, but he also was a bit lucky a couple of times and hit a lot of returns off the frame.'

Courier reckons that he is playing 'better than average', responding to smiles by adding, 'better than my average'. His travelling coach, Brad Stine, who jumped in the Yarra with him last year, sees important developments in his game since then.

'First of all, he is able to assume his position in tennis with much more ease,' Stine said. 'He's much more comfortable being where he is. The second point is that there's been a big evolution in his game over the last two years.

'If you'd asked the guys two years ago to describe Jim's game, they would have said, 'He's a grinder, he's a baseline basher'. Now I think we can say he's an attacking groundstroker. He's much more comfortable going up to the net. Before, he needed a road map when he got past the service line.'

Stine ought to keep the wet-suits handy, because his man is likely to win if his drives are as solid as his sales pitch. 'It's the first big match of the year,' Courier said, 'the battle of guys ranked one and two going at each other in a big situation. It should be appealing to all tennis fans.' It should indeed.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN (Melbourne): Men's singles, semi-finals: J COURIER (US) bt M STICH (Ger) 7-6 6-4 6-2; S EDBERG (Swe) bt P SAMPRAS (US) 7-6 6-3 7-6. Women's doubles, semi-finals: G FERNANDEZ (US) and N ZVEREVA (Bela) bt P FENDICK (US) and A STRNADOVA (Cz Rep) 6-2 7-5; P SHRIVER (US) and E SMYLIE (Aus) bt J HETHERINGTON (Can) and K RINALDI (US) 6-4 1-6 6-3. Boys' singles, quarter-finals (selected): J Baily (GB) bt M Hromec (Cz Rep) 7-5 6-2; J Delgado (GB) bt A ILIE (Aus) 6-2 6-4.

(Seeds in capitals)

----------------------------------------------------------------- MEN'S FINAL HEAD TO HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- JIM COURIER (US) v STEFAN EDBERG (Swe) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Edberg leads 4-3 Tournament Surface Round Winner Score 1989 Basle carpet F Courier 7-6 3-6 2-6 6-0 7-5 1989 Stockholm carpet QF Edberg 3-6 6-3 6-4 1990 Indian Wells hard SF Edberg 6-4 6-1 1991 Australian Open hard 4th Edberg 4-6 6-0 6-4 5-7 6-2 1991 French Open clay QF Courier 6-4 2-6 6-3 6-4 1991 US Open hard F Edberg 6-2 6-4 6-0 1992 Australian Open hard F Courier 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-2 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)