Tennis: Champion fired by family values: Simon O'Hagan in Paris explains the unique relationship between coach and player enjoyed by Sergi Bruguera of Spain

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The Independent Online
SERGI BRUGUERA is fed up. Out on Court No 2 at the Roland Garros stadium, the French Open champion is throwing his arms up in frustration. A match that he was winning easily is turning into something of a struggle. His opponent is Christian Ruud, a 21- year-old qualifier from Norway who has an irritating habit of breaking Bruguera's serve. He has done it three times in the third set, and this after Bruguera had brushed him aside in the first two. A Ruud awakening indeed.

Bruguera needs help. Ruud is about to serve for the set at 6-5. Bruguera turns towards a section of seating in the corner of the court, where his coach is sitting. Anguished words are spoken, but only by Bruguera. His coach looks on, impassive, his arms folded. A middle-aged man with hooded eyes and a silver-grey beard - like the late actor Fernando Rey in a track-suit - he knows that he must stay calm. 'It's not easy, but that's what I must do.'

The difficulty involved is considerable. This man means more to the 23-year-old Spaniard than someone to hone his forehand and provide psychological support. Bruguera's coach is also his father - Luis Bruguera, once a Spanish Davis Cup player, now a leading figure in the resurgence of the sport in his country. His calmness is rewarded: Bruguera breaks Ruud to 6-6 and runs out a 7-2 winner of the tie-break.

Few moments in the history of the Spanish game have been more glorious than when Bruguera won the French title last year, thus becoming the first Spanish man to win any Grand Slam event since Manuel Orantes took the US Open in 1975, and the first to win in Paris since Andres Gimeno in 1972. Even by the emotional standards of Roland Garros, the embrace between father and son that followed the victory over Jim Courier was something special.

According to Luis, it also brought an element of calm to a relationship in which there is always the danger that the pair might get on top of each other. Not many people, you might think, would want their fathers accompanying them to work every day. But it obviously does not bother Sergi Bruguera, alone among the world's leading men in having this arrangement. 'It's good,' he says. 'We communicate well. I like having him around all the time. Why not? He's my father. I love him.'

Luis, though, remains conscious of what could go wrong - and the consequences of that for family life - stressing that he is Sergi's coach entirely at the player's instigation. 'I have never been on my son's back,' he says, 'but always there alongside him, not to impose myself, but to respond to whatever he needs.'

Asked what the particular advantages are of being Sergi's father as well as his coach, Luis hesitates. 'I think perhaps there are more disadvantages,' he says. 'Especially when you are talking about a young man growing up. He needs his freedom, too. It's important that we keep my role as a coach and my role as a father completely separate. From a practical point of view, it helps of course. Arranging our lives and so on. But we try to avoid talking tennis the entire time.' Home is Barcelona, the powerbase of Spanish tennis and the place where Bruguera, an only child, and his father form their own world within the tight-knit world of tennis.

Luis Bruguera's ability to remain both devoted to his son's cause and detached in the way he goes about supporting it, has been instrumental in shaping Spain's most successful male player for a generation. Not since Orantes reached No 4 in the rankings 18 years ago has a Spaniard figured so prominently on the world scene.

Bruguera is a master of the game on clay, the surface on which Spaniards have traditionally excelled. A big man - 6ft 2in and 14st - his grappling style of play first brought him to the world's attention when, as an 18-year-old, he beat Jimmy Connors in the 1989 Italian Open. He won his first title in 1991, and has won 11 in all - 10 of them on clay.

His great strengths are a ferocious forehand, hit with punishing depth, and a mobility about the court which can make opponents feel he is impossible to shake off. 'He'll just stand there all day hitting topspin if you let him,' said Christian Ruud after his defeat. Bruguera's serve, not the greatest, is improving, according to his father.

What Bruguera also has is a champion's ability to dig himself out of trouble while looking as if nothing could be less likely. In last year's final he trailed Courier 2-0 in the final set, and the American sensed - wrongly - that his opponent would not recover. 'I thought he was hanging his head and he seemed really tired,' Courier said. Every time Bruguera lost his serve against Ruud last week, he broke back in the next game. That takes a lot of resolve.

Bruguera pays for his exertions, though, and his lugubrious manner, though rather engaging, indicates someone for whom tennis never ceases to be hard work. He was so exhausted after last year's French championships that he took a fortnight off and missed Wimbledon for the third year running. He probably won't be there next month, either. But then grass and Bruguera are anathema to one another. He would rather go bungee-jumping than show up at the All- England Club.

All Bruguera's efforts are concentrated on retaining his French title. It has been relatively easy so far - only 27 games and no sets dropped in his first three matches - but it won't be from now on. He is up against the dangerous young Australian Patrick Rafter in the last 16, and then probably Andrei Medvedev in the quarter-finals, and Pete Sampras or Courier in the semis. There will be times when he will turn to the man in the corner. And the man in the corner will gaze back, Bruguera's silent inspiration.

(Photograph omitted)

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