Tennis: Australian Open - Korda free to defend title

Rusedski calls for ban, but players agree to await legal process; Absence of Sampras leaves Grand Slam up for grabs
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S Greg Rusedski last night called for a ban on Petr Korda as the drugs affair which has thrown the sunny setting of the year's first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, into deep shadows of disarray and dispute continued to divide tennis on the eve of the tournament.

More than 200 ATP Tour players and officials, locked into a three-hour meeting in a Melbourne hotel, emerged to confirm that arguments over Korda escaping a ban for his offence will disrupt the sport for the rest of this year.

Mark Miles, the ATP Tour chief executive officer, said that because the matter remains subject to litigation, which is expected to go on for 11 months, the Tour was "quite happy" to allow the process to take its course. Some players were content with this. The American Richey Reneberg said: "You have to give the guy the benefit of the doubt." But Rusedski spoke for the majority of the players when he claimed: "How many pills do you have to take before you are banned? Clearly Korda took something wrong but he has escaped a ban."

An Australian player, who asked that his name be withheld, said: "Korda has been cheating and now he gets 11 months of free tennis. He could beat a lot of players in that time. While this is going on he should not be allowed to play."

At the closed meeting Korda was asked by one unnamed player to speak but declined. He left half an hour before discussions ended, flanked by three security guards who escorted him to his room in the hotel where the meeting took place.

Korda tested positive at Wimbledon last year for the steroid nandolone. In an announcement released quietly on the eve of the Christmas holidays the International Tennis Federation revealed Korda would lose his prize money and ranking points from the tournament but had escaped a ban on the decision of the appeals committee, established by the ITF, because of what they called "exceptional circumstances", choosing to believe Korda's explanation that he did not know he had taken, or been administered, the drug.

As the situation descends into an embarrassing mix of the shambolic and the farcical, the ITF are appealing against the decision of their own appeals committee and Korda is appealing against the ITF's appeal. No more needs to be said about the weakness of the present regulations and the way they are administered.

Korda has insisted all along he is determined to defend the Australian Open title he won last year, his only Grand Slam success. He is not seeded and his first-round opponent will be Spain's Galo Blanco, with a possible fourth-round contest against Marcelo Rios, whom he beat in the 1998 final, if the Czech gets that far in the atmosphere of frenzy which is bound to surround his every appearance on court.

On the less hysterical playing side, the absence of Pete Sampras from the head of the men's draw leaves the event bereft of an athlete who may perhaps not be the most charismatic of sporting icons but who has been the man to beat for six long years. The last time Sampras opted not to play a Grand Slam was the Australian Open of 1992, since when he has competed in 27, winning 10.

The sight of Rios as top seed is no compensation whatsoever, since the Chilean left-hander is suffering from an ailing back and a serious attitude problem. It can't be easy to go about your business with the whole world against you, so to stand atop the heap at Melbourne despite that has to be acknowledged as a considerable achievement.

The early rounds are undemanding for Rios but after the possibility of Korda comes a projected fourth-round clash with the 6ft 6in American Todd Martin, who is in hot form, having closed last season by winning Stockholm and opened this one with victory in Sydney yesterday. Martin - seeded 15th - has rebounded so positively from debilitating injuries that he could well lay waste the top half of the draw, a section which includes Greg Rusedski.

The British No 2, seeded eighth, has yet to come off his starting blocks this year, having lost in the first round at Doha and Sydney. If he is worried, Greg is not letting it show, though he needs urgently to get away positively this time. That may prove difficult, since he tackles an Aussie and fellow left-hander, Scott Draper.

Though Draper has struggled for some time to grow into the title pinned to his chest "the next Rod Laver", he will be assured of the sort of raucous support which propelled another Australian, Todd Woodbridge, to victory over Rusedski in straight sets at this tournament 12 months ago. However, Rusedski should merely need to think and play positively while remembering he has defeated Draper in both their previous clashes.

Rusedski's next tough hurdle looks to be a fourth-round match against the 10th seed, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, or Jonas Bjorkman (whose first-round meeting is the pick of the draw) and then perhaps Rios, or possibly Martin.

As sixth seed the British No 1, Tim Henman, has been handed an undemanding draw. First up is Karim Alami, the Moroccan who was seen off by Henman in the semi-final stage at Doha. After that the opposition should be straightforward until the 11th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic in the fourth round.

The biggest obstacle to significant Henman progress is Australian, since either Patrick Rafter or Mark Philippoussis should be lying in wait in the quarter-finals. Despite having taken a month off to rest an ailing knee and refresh the mind, Rafter is finding Australian expectation wearying, and his form is wayward. Philippoussis, beaten by Rafter in the US Open final last September, has given strong indication so far of being in better condition under the tutelage of Pat Cash.

Henman looked sharp in Doha until he was felled in the final by the German qualifier Rainer Schuttler (who has also breezed through the Melbourne qualifying competition). Since then Henman has lost three consecutive round-robin contests in an exhibition event at Kooyong, just down the road from the Open stadium.

In the most open men's field for years, Andre Agassi must surely fancy his chances of repeating the victory of 1995. His form is back to that level, except in the crucial matter of stamina. Draining five-set matches nowadays find the 28-year-old American wanting, hence his poor showing at the 1998 Grand Slams in an otherwise brilliant year. Notwithstanding, Agassi could go the distance this time, given the ability to win quickly.

If the United States fail to lift the men's title, there are high hopes that the women's crown will be won by a native-born American for the first time since Chris Evert 25 years ago. Lindsay Davenport's comprehensive demolition of Martina Hingis yesterday in Sydney confirms her worthy status as world No 1 after she suffered two losses to Hingis.

The setback cannot have helped Hingis's desire to complete a hat- trick of Australian Opens but the Melbourne draw has been kind in pitching the powerful Venus Williams into Davenport's half. Their quarter-final match-up should provide one of the finalists, while Hingis can expect a semi-final with either Monica Seles or Steffi Graf.

With 21 Grand Slam singles titles, Graf is three short of Mar-garet Court's record, but the heat and twanging muscles could take their toll in her quest for her 22nd. Even so, the later stages will be fascinating.

OUTSIDE COURTIERS: FOUR TO FOLLOW IN MELBOURNE

MARAT SAFIN

THE Russian 18-year-old vaulted from nowhere into the top 50 last year (he was the youngest to get that high in 1998) and reached the fourth round in his first attempt at both the French and United States Opens, as well as establishing himself in his nation's Davis Cup team. He beat Andre Agassi and the defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in Paris and it needed Pete Sampras to stop him in New York. Safin relishes the big-time challenges and will find them on this, his Australian Open debut, where he is scheduled to run up against Kuerten again in the second round.

LLEYTON HEWITT

ANYONE who has marvelled at the toughness of this 17-year-old from Adelaide needs to be told that he played Australian Rules football until switching to tennis at 13. Hewitt took to it so well that he had risen to No 1 in the Australian Under-18 division by the age of 15. He turned professional last year and promptly made the biggest leap (609 places) in the rankings to end 1998 just outside the top 100. Beat Andre Agassi last year on his way to winning the Adelaide title in only his second tournament and also upset his compatriot the US Open champion Pat Rafter last week.

CHANDA RUBIN

THIS daughter of a Louisiana judge is hot on the comeback trail. After reaching No 6 in the world rankings in April 1996 she underwent surgery on an injured right hand and was out of action for the rest of the year. Her return to action last year was patchy but she has usually done well at the Australian Open (she has been a semi-finalist once and has reached the fourth round twice) and is in fine form. Specialises in marathon contests, which she always seems to win, and came back from 0-5 0-40 in the final set to beat Jana Novotna at the 1995 French Open, saving nine match points.

JELENA DOKIC

AUSTRALIAN tennis, short of a charismatic female since the days of Evonne Goolagong, could have a winner in this 15-year-old who was born in Yugoslavia and now lives in New South Wales. A wild card into the Open is merited reward for her feat in winning the Hopman Cup mixed team event for Australia in Perth last week with Mark Philippoussis. In the four Grand Slam junior events of 1998 she won the US Open, was runner-up at the French and a semi-finalist at both the Australian and Wimbledon, the best showing since Martina Hingis, whom she could meet in the third round.

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