Tennis: Corretja heads the Spanish invasion of Paris

The French Open, which starts on Monday, is likely to be dominated by clay court specialists. John Roberts looks at the main contenders in the men's singles
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It is possible that the British tennis establishment's reputation for looking down its nose has been misconstrued. The habit might be a consequence of years spent scanning the world rankings for British names. Ironically, Tim Henman's seeding for the French Open, which starts on Monday, may also create a false impression.

Encouraging though it is to see a British man seeded for a Grand Slam championship (it happened last in 1982, when Buster Mottram was No 14 for Paris and No 15 for Wimbledon), it must be remembered that the 22- year-old is virtually an apprentice on the comparatively slow clay courts of Europe. That was underlined by the manner of Henman's early elimination at the Italian Open and from this week's tournament in St Polten, Austria.

The French have simply adhered to the ATP Tour rankings, so Henman, in the absence of Boris Becker, Todd Martin and Thomas Enqvist (the Swede withdrew yesterday), is seeded No 14, a reward for success earlier in the year on the medium-paced concrete courts of Qatar, Sydney and Melbourne and a fast indoor carpet in Antwerp.

Any progress Henman makes at Stade Roland Garros will be a bonus. In the opening round he plays Olivier Delaitre, a 30-year-old French wild card, ranked No 143. Australia's Mark Philippoussis, a winner on clay in Munich, may cast a shadow in the second round, and Henman is projected to meet Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the defending champion, in the last 16.

Similar reservations apply to the unseeded Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, whose game, based on his mighty serve, is tailored for faster surfaces. Rusedski, currently ranked No 41, plays Sweden's Magnus Norman in the opening round, and Pete Sampras is a possibility in the third round.

With Wimbledon a month away, it will be a relief if Henman and Rusedski leave for the lawns of England in better condition, physically and mentally. Both players have lost momentum following time off recovering from injuries.

In Henman's case, although surgery has cleared his elbow of fragments of bone which had been floating in the joint for about 10 years, he has apparently experienced side-effects which may be psychosomatic.

Sampras, the world No 1, intends to make a challenge in spite of a thigh injury that threatens to undermine his prospects of completing his collection of the Grand Slam singles championships. The American will do well to survive a first round against Fabrice Santoro.

Sampras, 25, was asked recently if there was a likelihood of his becoming as obsessive about winning the French Open as Ivan Lendl became in respect to Wimbledon. "I think Lendl's personality and my personality are so different," Sampras replied. "He was almost to the point of being consumed with Wimbledon. He changed his whole year basically for that one tournament. I think that's putting too much pressure, at least for me.

"I tried playing more on clay. That didn't work. If you ask me that question when I'm 29 or 30, maybe I will be consumed. I feel like I have five, six or seven good chances to get lucky and win there one year."

Kafelnikov reckons it would take "a miracle" for him to make a successful defence, having knocked himself out of the early part of the season by breaking a hand on a punchbag.

Muster has been out of sorts since flourishing on the hard courts of Florida. Richard Krajicek, it will be recalled, won at Wimbledon last year after advancing to the quarter-finals in Paris and anything is possible where Goran Ivanisevic is concerned.

Jim Courier and Bruguera, who, between them, dominated the event from 1991 to 1994, will have to be heeded, and the two men in form are Marcelo Rios and Alex Corretja, seeded No 7 and No 8 respectively.

Corretja heads a posse of a dozen Spaniards ranked in the world's top 100. Five are seeded and most have strong connections with Barcelona. After winning the Italian championship, Corretja was asked if he would exchange his victory for Ronaldo to remain with Barcelona football club. "I might do, if it were a less important tournament," he said.

It was also put to Corretja that he could turn out to be the Thomas Muster of the year, having reached the finals of his four clay court tournaments so far. "I wish I could be," he sighed. "Many things have changed in my tennis. I work very hard. I try to be more concentrated. I used to see a lot of matches during the tournament. Now I just want to relax after each match. I eat and then go to bed. I am more professional. I go to bed just to sleep."

Corretja's defeat by an ailing Sampras in the quarter-final of last year's United States Open, after holding a match point in a fifth set tie-break, had a seminal effect on the 23-year-old Spaniard. "My recurring thought then was why couldn't I play consistently for two consecutive weeks," he recalled. "At the end of the year I changed my coach. Since then I started playing well for longer periods of time."

The change involved parting from Jose "Pepo" Clavet and returning to Javier Duarte, a mentor during his formative years. "I'm increasingly more confident, because my game is improving a lot," Corretja said. "I played several matches on hard courts, too, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens on grass."

Asked why there are always so many Spaniards in the final stages of tournaments, he smiled. "That means that we are very good players," he said, pausing before adding, "Unfortunately, in Spain, people are only interested in top 10 players."

Outside Spain, some of the names take time to assimilate. Bruguera, having won the French Open in 1993, was tuning his game for a successful defence when Britain played a Davis Cup tie against Portugal in Oporto. One of a group of British supporters suggested to another that they travel on to watch a tournament in Estoril.

"Who's playing?"

"Well, that Buggerer's the top seed."

French Open draw, Digest, page 31