Tennis: Courier poised to deliver the American dream

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The Independent Online
SHORT of organising a ticker- tape reception, which would merely add to the glorious chaos, American tennis is about to embrace its heroes and heroines with characteristic razzmatazz at the United States Open, which starts here today. And why not?

It has been a bountiful year for the Stars and Stripes: Jim Courier thumped balls in a style that would impress patrons of the Mets and Yankees to win the Australian and French championships, and is No 1 in the world; the ragamuffin Andre Agassi suddenly finds that he has more credibility than some of the British nobility after triumphing at Wimbledon; and American females gathered gold at the Olympics, Jennifer Capriati in the singles, Mary Joe and Gigi Fernandez, related only by national pride, in the doubles.

A home victory in the men's singles final at Flushing Meadow on Sunday week would secure all four major titles for the United States for the first time since the Californian, Donald Budge, became the first player to achieve the Grand Slam, in 1938.

Courier, swept away by Stefan Edberg in last year's final, returns as the top seed, if not the best bet. A third-round defeat at Wimbledon by the Russian Andrei Olhovskiy took the slam out of Budge's prospective successor, who has shown little sign of recovering the confidence which overwhelmed the opposition in Melbourne and Paris.

If the seeding goes to plan, Courier will have to eliminate three compatriots, John McEnroe, Agassi and Pete Sampras to secure a rematch with Edberg, whom he defeated in the final of the Australian Open. A Courier-Agassi quarter-final would enable us to see if the psychological balance has shifted since Agassi's humiliation on the clay of Roland Garros in the semi- finals of the French Open in June.

Sampras, the last American to win the championship, two years ago, is considered by many, on the strength of some encouraging recent form, to be the one most likely to raise the flag again. Invariably stylish, Sampras has seemed unable to sustain the necessary determination in his Grand Slam performances since finding the measure of Ivan Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi in 1990.

Michael Chang, who began the American revival by winning the 1989 French Open, is in the lower half of the draw. While it is unusual to advance the claims of one who has lost to a Briton (Jeremy Bates) at Wimbledon, Chang displayed outstanding form earlier in the year in winning two titles on rubberised concrete courts similar to those at Flushing Meadow.

MaliVai Washington, who was born in New York, is seeded to play Chang in the fourth round, and we must not overlook the fact that Ivan Lendl, a three-times champion, is now a US citizen, a point which may drive Jimmy Connors all the harder if they get to meet in the second round.

Whither Europe? Is it possible that the old world will be denied every major singles title for the first time since Rod Laver's second Grand Slam in 1969?

Edberg and Boris Becker no longer are the principal contenders of every tournament they enter, and Michael Stich has endured a difficult year coping with the celebrity of being a Wimbledon champion. While it would be unwise to discount these three (even though Becker is fighting the affects of a virus), the European challenge is being taken up by others, notably Goran Ivanisevic, Petr Korda and Richard Krajicek, who would be strongly fancied but for problems with a persistent shoulder injury.

Mention of Krajicek is a reminder that the women's event, though lacking the same depth of competition, often provides an exciting finale (the young Dutchman would agree that 'lazy fat pigs' do not figure in the final stages of Grand Slams).

Capriati's success in defeating Steffi Graf in the Olympic final appears to have restored the 16-year- old's flagging desire, and Monica Seles has broken her vow of silence since Wimbledon and is endeavouring, with difficulty, to grunt back into form. A fourth-round match between these two could be one of the highlights of the tournament, as was their semi-final last year.

Graf has not been in the best of health, but she remains one of the favourites, along with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (a projected quarter- final opponent), Martina Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini. So what's new?

Courier and Seles are your correspondent's tentative selections; Wimbledon was a splendid reminder that predictions should not be taken too seriously.