Tennis: Bruguera's base rate rises with interest: Simon O'Hagan looks for a champion among players who prefer the back of the court

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WHEN Andre Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, he was regarded almost as a freak, and not just because of his singular fashion sense. For years the only Grand Slam tournament still being played on grass had been dominated by the sort of players best suited to that surface.

It had become accepted wisdom: to do well on grass you had to be a serve-and-volley specialist. Just look at Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who between them had won five titles in the previous seven years. And when they missed out, other power-players came to the fore - Pat Cash in 1987 and Michael Stich in 1991. The top-spin of Bjorn Borg, the flat drives of Jimmy Connors were becoming just a fond memory.

Agassi showed there was another way, returning serve brilliantly, hitting from the back of the court, deploying a wide range of spin, moving his opponent about. And his victory in the final was all the more piquant for it coming against Goran Ivanisevic, a player who reduced serve-and-volley to its crudest form.

When this year's Wimbledon began, there were the now- familiar lamentations about the state of the grass-court game. Racket technology and the emphasis on physique and fitness were turning it into a onedimensional bore, a trend which if allowed to continue, some people feared, could even pose a threat to its future.

At the halfway stage of the tournament, however, nothing seems less likely. This is not just because of the interest created by a succession of unprecedented upsets, in scale if not in number. The tennis itself has done the job. Agassi is back, and close to his best, and more to the point he is not alone in playing the way he does.

Agassi has found some company in the Spaniard Sergi Bruguera, French Open winner for the last two years, and a player so wedded to the game on clay that not even he gave himself much of a chance on grass. All that has changed, and a question which nobody had thought worth asking has resurfaced: can a baseliner win Wimbledon again?

The biggest shocks and the best tennis can go together, but often they do not. It is clear what the shocks of the first week were: the defeats of Stich, Edberg, and Jim Courier - seeded two, three and five respectively. But the match of the week did not involve any of them. For that you had to be on No 1 Court on Thursday for the four-hour epic between Bruguera and the young Australian Patrick Rafter.

Here was the contrast in styles that adds colour and life to any sporting contest. Rafter full of pace and panache, Bruguera striving just as hard but varying his game more, mixing rallies into his net play. And after saving four match-points, it was Bruguera who came through, 13-11 in the fifth set.

Bruguera's performance emphasised an important point for the baseliner - he rarely looks as if he is winning. It is naturally a more defensive mode. There he is, his back to the wall, under the onslaught of a big-hitting opponent. The little guy trying to get along in a big bad world. No wonder we love them. As Agassi says: 'I have to fight so hard to survive out there, and the only thing that gets me through is just the determination to do it.'

Not that Bruguera is a little guy. Indeed, his height (6ft 2in) adds to his problems because on grass the bounce is low and you have to get down to the ball all the time. As he said after beating Jean-Philippe Fleurian in the third round on Friday: 'Technically it's very difficult, because I tend to play very upright, up on my toes. Here you have to put all your foot on the ground, otherwise you are slipping. Then that makes it difficult to move into position to hit the ball. The ball's coming at you with slice, and it's coming very quickly.'

Agassi singles out footwork as a key part of his armoury. 'I move well and my footing seems to be a little more sure than the guys I'm playing against, and that's a big advantage.'

Bruguera, though, is not exclusively a baseliner. He could not have done as well without adopting traditional grass-court methods. He can volley, and does, but like anybody venturing into strange territory, the challenge is as much psychological as technical. 'It surprises me how well I am volleying,' he says. 'This makes the game much easier. Now I have more confidence.'

Embellished by a sure volley, Bruguera's game suddenly becomes a much more serious proposition on grass. He can serve with power, though more often just with easy efficiency, and his groundstrokes are constructed with immense care. But eventually the point has to be won, which is where the accuracy of Bruguera's passing shots comes in. He sizes up a forehand down the line like a marksman potting tin cans on a gate-post. And that, of course, is also one of Agassi's greatest attributes.

The baseliner does appreciate a bit of outside help in what often seems like a private battle. Hot weather is his friend, and it arrived last week. Naturally grass-courts are at their lushest and skiddiest at the start of a tournament - they have to be if there is to be anything left of them after a fortnight's pounding - but once the sun gets on them and the ball bounces higher on the hardening surface, men like Bruguera and Agassi come into their own. As Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, says: 'If the weather stays hot and sunny, then fine. But when it gets windy and it rains, all of a sudden it gets hard to pass and it's a totally different game.'

Gilbert thinks the tennis Agassi played in beating Aaron Krickstein in straight sets in their third-round match on Friday was the best he has seen at Wimbledon so far. 'He likes the ball low, he likes it fast and he likes to pass. The rhythm fits into his game.'

Big servers operate in the hope that opponents never get into a rhythm, which is why Agassi's last-16 match against Todd Martin tomorrow is full of fascination. Likewise, in its own way, Bruguera's meeting with another baseliner, Michael Chang. The signs are there: something is stirring at the back of the court.

(Photograph omitted)

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