TENNIS; Bournemouth seeking prime-time slot

THERE is a chance that the Bournemouth clay-court tournament will be restored to April, its former happy state in the scheme of tennis, rather than remaining incongruous, like an ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre during the US Open.

For the past four years, the $375,000 (pounds 235,000) Samsung Open has been little more than an afterthought, stuck between the American hard-court season and the year-end European indoor events. This has meant that Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski have either shown ambivalence towards Bourne- mouth's slow, green, clay courts, or have forsaken them.

The Lawn Tennis Association's gamble in buying a second ATP Tour event to complement the Stella Artois Grass-Court Championships at London's Queen's Club in June, fulfilled the glaring need for a British tournament on clay. But the only available date, in September, made the event vulnerable.

Yesterday there was optimism that the date of the tournament may be changed to synchronise with the European clay-court season, which climaxes at the French Open at the end of May. This would be possible if the LTA bought a new tournament date, such as the Czech Open, scheduled for 26 April next year, but reportedly in financial difficulty.

"The LTA will meet with the sponsors and BBC two weeks after the Samsung Open and decide what course to take in the future," said John Feaver, the tournament director. "We are looking at possible options to switch to an earlier date."

Bournemouth gained prominence as a tennis venue when the West Hants Club hosted the British Hard Court Championships, played on red shale. In 1968 the event became part of tennis history when Britain's Mark Cox defeated America's Pancho Gonzales, becoming the first amateur to beat a professional in open competition.

By the early 1980s, the Bournemouth tournament was struggling and was eventually dropped from the calendar. Mounting criticism of the lack of clay courts on which to school young players in groundstroke skills on the game's slowest surface prompted the LTA to build more clay courts and revive the event in 1996.

The prospect of winning extra ranking points and prize money has attracted clay-court specialists, particularly from Spain (Albert Costa won in 1996, Felix Mantilla in '97 and '98).

Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, the top seed this week, beat Alex Lopez-Moron, of Spain, 6-4, 7-5, in the second round yesterday and will play Karim Alami, the Morrocan No 8 seed, in the quarter-finals today.

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