Tennis: Courier at home in heat: Bud Collins reports from Melbourne on the defending champion hoping to end a bad run

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The Independent Online
IT was 192 years ago that this territory was first approached, by a Royal Navy sailing boat called HMS Investigator, commanded by Matthew Flinders. The captain's good name now adorns Melbourne's six-year-old tennis yard, with its movable steel roof, where the Australian Open begins tomorrow.

The French, Wimbledon and US championships are to come, but none has the day-at- the-beach ambience of the Australian at Flinders Park. Or the location.

The 15,000-seat centre court is downtown, an easy destination for pedestrians. Although the city's attractive skyline, a handful of silver skyscrapers, poses as backdrop, Flinders is set apart within an enclave of greenery on the Yarra River. Sharing the parkland is the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Neighbouring Fitzroy Gardens contains a venerable hut, the cottage of the founding father, Captain Cook, shipped in from Yorkshire many years ago. While discovering Australia for himself, James Spencer Courier of Dade City, Florida, has composed his own American variation on Cook's theme. Though not the first American to win this tournament, Courier is the only one to capture the men's title twice. He could be the first since the Queensland farm boy Roy Emerson in the mid-Sixties to take three consecutively.

A pair of Wimbledon champions, Pete Sampras and Michael Stich, are seeded ahead of him. But when the sun begins to burn and the Flinders tarmac sizzles, Florida Jim sizzles along with it.

'I've always liked the heat, the conditions here,' he says. 'And I want to start winning again.' Courier, who opens the tournament going against his huge-serving countryman Bryan Shelton, has been nothing but a hazy sunset since last July. Failing to capitalise on uncommon Centre Court warmth, he lost the Wimbledon final to Sampras. He hopes he has rested enough to resume where he left off a year ago in beating Stefan Edberg for the title after the Swede (champion himself in 1985 and 1987) eliminated Sampras.

It might take an explorer of Flinders's quality, or an investigator, to track all the leading lights who have not been able to locate Melbourne, including two other Wimbledon champions. Boris Becker is on paternity leave, and Andre Agassi faithfully keeps intact his streak of never having played here - missing for an eighth straight year. Apparently it is too far from Home Sweet Vegas.

Surrendering to a variety of physical complaints, Richard Krajicek, Michael Chang, Sergi Bruguera and Andrei Medvedev are also giving the Australian a miss. The same goes for the three-time champions Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova as well as Jennifer Capriati.

Never mind, say the organisers bravely. It's still one of the four major prizes, the start of the quintessential quadrilateral - the Grand Slam - and this continent's most important international sporting occasion. More than 325,000 customers and dollars 50m are expected. Luciano Pavarotti, Tina Turner, Midnight Oil and Sting are among those who have served up their acts on Matt Flinders's court, but tennis remains the largest cash cow to graze beside the Yarra.

Sampras leads off well out of harm's way against a local wild card, Joshua Eagle, but Stich could get a scuffle from MaliVai Washington. Edberg, seeded fourth, will have to pay attention against Javier Sanchez, as will the No 8 seed, Petr Korda, against Thomas Enquist, Cedric Pioline (No 7) against Martin Damm and Aleksandr Volkov (No 12) against Wally Masur.

Steffi Graf, who is looking for a fourth Australian title, began her 1988 Grand Slam at the then brand new Flinders. She would have had another in 1992 if she had won the third set against Seles. Kimberly Po is her first-round fodder. Karina Habsudova fills that role for the second seed, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. But Conchita Martinez, the third seed, has a worry in Natalia Zvereva. A definite threat, Jana Novotna, who should have beaten Graf to win Wimbledon, did knock her out here in 1991.

But for a substantial infusion of badly needed new blood, the women look to Mary Pierce, just turned 19 and seeded ninth. Having exiled her troubled and troublesome father, the blonde 6ft bludgeon is hitting harder, smiling lots more.

A curious entry, the 32-year-old Tracy Austin is gracing her first major in 11 years. 'I'll be playing a full schedule this year, and I think I can do well,' she said. She is ranked 160 in the world.

Chris Wilkinson spearheads the British challenge, taking on the 11th seed, Marc Rosset. Clare Wood opposes Nicole Provis, and Monique Javer, who came through a qualifying squeeze yesterday (6-1, 2-6, 7-5 over Tessa Price), is rewarded with Magdalena Mroz.

But the English have been a presence around here. Fred Perry won as recently as 1934, Virginia Wade in 1972 and Matthew Flinders stands, in bronze, outside St Paul's Cathedral.

(Photograph omitted)