Tennis: Corretja pilots Spanish Armada

French Open: Relaxation is the key for a young clay king with new courts to conquer. Simon O'Hagan reports
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They say nobody remembers a loser, and in the United States you might think that the tendency to forget who came second would be even more pronounced than elsewhere. Not so in the case of Alex Corretja, however.

Corretja is the 23-year-old Spaniard who at last year's US Open played his part in one of the great matches of Grand Slam history - more than four hours' worth of riveting competition with the then two-times champion Pete Sampras that culminated in a tie-break at the end of the fifth set. Sampras only won (9-7, to earn a place in the semi-finals) after having saved a match point, and in many ways the experience was Corretja's making.

Overnight he went from being just another talented baseliner to something altogether more serious, and having built on what he achieved at Flushing Meadow, rising from the mid-20s to the world's top 10, he goes into the French Open (starting tomorrow) as perhaps the man the others would most like to avoid.

"The match against Pete gave me the confidence to do what I've been doing these last few weeks," Corretja said last week. And that has been to establish himself as indisputably the form player of the clay-court season, twice a winner, in Estoril and in Rome, and twice a runner-up.

Very often that in itself would not be enough to encourage the belief in a player's likely success at Roland Garros, especially since Corretja has never been further than the fourth round there. But then you look at the seven players seeded above him, and there are doubts about them all.

Pete Sampras, a winner at least twice at every other Grand Slam, has never won the French in seven attempts. And he has a groin injury. Michael Chang is in a slump, having suffered two successive first-round defeats, in Atlanta and Rome, for the first time since 1991. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the defending champion, has spent most of the year nursing the bone he broke hitting a punch-bag and is way off the pace.

Goran Ivanisevic thinks he's got a chance. He too has been injured (he broke a finger when he shut a door on it), returning to reach the semis in Rome. But he's played in 33 Grand Slam tournaments over 10 years without winning any of them, and is he going to start doing so now, on the surface least suited to his game and his temperament?

Then there is Thomas Muster, winner in his annus mirabilis of 1995. The iron man has been showing signs of metal fatigue lately, and in the year of his 30th birthday the pressure under which he has been putting his body may at last be beginning to take its toll. Richard Krajicek is perhaps a better bet. Apart from last year's Wimbledon, his best Grand Slam effort is his semi-final at Roland Garros in 1993. Finally, the prodigiously talented but wholly unpredictable Marcelo Rios of Chile, a loner and law unto himself who doesn't quite seem to belong.

Contrast him with Corretja, so obviously a product of an inclusive Spanish system that has produced extraordinary strength in depth in the men's game in recent years. As well as Corretja, there are five other Spaniards seeded at this year's French - Carlos Moya, Felix Mantilla, Albert Costa, the 1994 runner-up Alberto Berasategui, and the 1993 and 1994 champion, Sergi Bruguera. That's six Spaniards in the top 20, and there are 12 in the top 100.

Not since Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Roy Emerson were flying the flag for Australia in the 1960s has there been a community of compatriots quite like this generation from Spain, all based in Barcelona. "On Monday I practise with Moya," Corretja says. "On Tuesday I practise with Costa. On Wednesday I practise with Mantilla. Every day you have a good match for practice." What would Tim Henman give for competition like that?

The result is that Spanish players are now making their mark beyond their traditional stronghold of the clay court. There was Corretja at last year's US Open, and Moya at this year's Australian Open, where the Mallorcan who had just been beaten by Henman in the Sydney final came through to be a surprise runner-up to Sampras.

"We're not afraid of the top players," Corretja says. "They've got two arms and two legs just like us. We are really in good shape to beat these players. That's what we've been doing. On clay it is difficult to beat us because we are good workers - strong mentally and physically. And now also we are showing that we can play on hard courts."

That is crucial to the Spaniards' standing in the game. There is a lot of what you might call surface snobbery in tennis. Muster's clay-court achievements two years ago, when he went unbeaten on the surface for 40 matches, were denigrated by those (mostly Americans) who felt it meant nothing if he never did anything anywhere else. But Corretja and Co can't be pigeon-holed. "That's really good for us," Corretja says. "We can go to tournaments and relax."

Not that Corretja ever seems otherwise. Noted for his easygoing and friendly nature, he won the Stefan Edberg sportsmanship award last year and claims that a lot of his recent success is down to his mastery of the art of keeping cool. The pressure is elsewhere, which is one of the reasons why, in a fortnight's time, Corretja might just find that a famous defeat is no longer what we most associate him with.