Tennis: Bruguera seeks to restore natural order

Chris Bowers says the old stager is likely to see off the young pretender
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If Sergi Bruguera beats Gustavo Kuerten today to claim his third French Open title, the Roland Garros roll of honour will give precious little hint of the carnage that has been wrought among the seeds over the past two weeks.

The 26-year-old Spaniard goes into this afternoon's match against the colourful Brazilian as clear favourite to take his third title here in five years, and with it a position among the great champions. Despite his best exploits having come on clay, Bruguera is a genuine force on the four recognised surfaces (clay, hard, grass and carpet), and has beaten Pete Sampras on the hard courts of Key Biscayne this year.

Although his route to the final might be considered a shade fortuitous - he has beaten just one seed, Michael Chang in the fourth round - his is a story of genuine rehabilitation through hard graft. Having been his country's hero in 1993-94, he has had to watch over the past 12 months as a new crop of Spaniards has swept past him. He slipped down the rankings and out of the Spanish Davis Cup team as Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Felix Mantilla and Alex Corretja moved in.

Bruguera began the year ranked 81, but a great run on the hard courts of Arabia, Australia and America took him back into the top 30, and he just squeezed into the No 16 seed slot here with a ranking of 19 - sixth among the Spaniards, who arrived with 13 players in the top 100.

There was a defining moment in the second set of his match against Chang, which may have set him on course for the title. Having lost the first set, he stopped complaining over line calls, decided to hit the ball flatter, and came into the net more. The result was a victory in four sets as Chang became more and more bemused at the Spaniard's tactics. In his two subsequent matches against Hicham Arazi and Pat Rafter, he also dropped the opening set but won in four with displays of growing confidence, and his uncharacteristic displays of delight after winning his last three matches suggest he is wound up for this title as never before.

Kuerten comes into the final a bit like the winner of New Faces. He has emerged from an event dominated by newcomers with no respect for big reputations, and with the possible exception of Arazi he is the most refreshing character here.

Known as "Guga", he has been playing, for his clothing supplier Diadora, in the Brazilian football team colours of yellow and blue, which caused a mild contretemps with the tournament authorities. While the French Open does not have Wimbledon's "predominantly white" rule, the organisers do like some white on the players' attire, and asked Kuerten if he could oblige. Kuerten referred the matter to Diadora, with the upshot that he now wears a white bandana (and, he assures us, white underwear).

He has all the freshness of a youngster revelling in the big time - after winning an important point he bounces up and down on his feet like an excited toddler. His backhand is his best weapon, but he has few technical weaknesses, his one Achilles heel being a tendency to stay too far behind the baseline, making him vulnerable to wide serves and groundshots.

Kuerten's presence in the final, coupled with the achievement of Magnus Norman, Galo Blanco, Arazi, Filip Dewulf and Rafter in reaching their first Grand Slam quarter-finals, testifies to the seeds' casualty list. Just two seeds in the last eight is a new low, but it is unlikely to be the last time it happens.

What this year's French Open - and to a lesser extent January's Australian - appear to prove is that the competition is now so fierce that it will soon be normal for many of the big names to crash out early.

Whether this is good news is arguable. Seeing players such as Kuerten in Grand Slam finals is obviously exciting, but it pushes the high-profile rivalries further into the background as the same two players find it ever harder to get to finals. And that means that for as long as the public wants to see the big-name players in the big matches, men's tennis will have a problem.

As for the new crop here, Arazi is probably the most exciting. The 23- year-old Moroccan left-hander plays with a verve and panache that recalls the young John McEnroe (though McEnroe was world No1 at 21; Arazi will only break the top 50 tomorrow). Kuerten has level-headed people around him, notably his coach Larri Passos, but he has yet to convince the tennis world that he will not be a one-week wonder.

Even if he is, he has the satisfaction of being in a Grand Slam final, one which he might even win, although he will have to raise his game from the level of Friday's semi-final against Filip Dewulf. Perhaps the best thing he could do for tennis would be to contribute to a great match, if only to make the point that you do not need the top seeds to have great finals.