Tennis: Courier to be quick on the draw: Guy Hodgson reports on the leading seeds' prospects for success at Flushing Meadow

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The Independent Online
IF Jim Courier needed anything to boost his self-belief going into the United States Open Championships, he got it on Thursday. Some draws are kind, the one the world No 1 received was positively soothing.

While Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, has Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Michael Stich and Stefan Edberg in his half of the draw, Courier was handed a much clearer path towards a title he has yet to win. He will hone his bludgeoning forehand against Marco Aurelio Gorriz, of Spain, in the first round tomorrow and will face a qualifier in the second.

Not that the American was suffering from a crisis of confidence in any case. He arrives at Flushing Meadow fresh from his first victory over Boris Becker and from the US Hardcourt Championships in Indianapolis where he did not lose a set and dropped only two of 46 service games.

'It's the best I've felt going in,' said Courier, who has reached the final of all three Grand Slam tournaments this year. 'I felt pretty poor the past two years.' So poor he was the US Open runner-up in 1991 and a semi-finalist last year.

Courier's victory in Indianapolis ensured he regained the highest ground in the world rankings after being supplanted by Sampras for 19 weeks. Over the past seven weeks, despite possessing a 51-9 win/loss record in 1993, five tournament victories and earnings of dollars 1.6m ( pounds 1m), he has been practising with his coaches Brad Stine and Jose Higueras.

'I feel really good,' he said. 'My game is coming together and I am fresh. Who knows what that means?'

It will mean plenty for Courier's rivals, none of whom is making a totally compelling case in their favour. Sampras guaranteed his fall from the No 1 ranking by losing to Patrick Rafter, of Australia, in the US Hardcourts while Becker's appearance in the final against Courier was the first time he had reached that far in a tournament since February. The German then made an early exit from the Hamlet Cup on Long Island this week although that probably had more to do with a reluctance to play than any true reflection of form. Becker entered only because he expected to need match practice, a requirement fulfilled by his reaching the Indianapolis final.

Stefan Edberg did rather better in the Hamlet Cup and will be at Flushing Meadow attempting to win three successive US Open titles. The Swede has kept a relatively low profile this year but he was not tearing up the courts this time last year either and he still beat Sampras in the final.

Even during the tournament Edberg did not stamp his authority, requiring 25 hours 42 minutes to prevail. His semi-final with Chang, in particular, was a five- hour mixture of the mundane and magnificent in which he served 18 double-faults but won 17 out of 21 points at the conclusion to recover from 4-2 down in the final set. Which all goes to prove that just because Edberg has not been at his best it does not mean he cannot win again.

While Edberg was putting a workaholic to shame with his hours in the office, Monica Seles won last year's US Open by spending little more than seven hours on court. Which makes her absence this time the sadder. Still recovering from being stabbed in April, Seles is still ranked second in the world, underlining not only her early-season dominance but the lack of a serious challenge to Steffi Graf since.

The German won the Canadian Open last Sunday for her fifth tournament victory in a row, a run that includes the French Open and Wimbledon.

Graf begins as overwhelming favourite with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who defeated her in the quarter-finals at Flushing Meadow last year, as her most likely final opponent.

If there is to be a shock - and it is a measure of how much she has failed to live up to her billing that it would be regarded as so - it will probably come from Jennifer Capriati. The American responded to playing for her country by winning the Olympic gold but has yet fully to flow in her country's championship.

She lost to Graf in the Canadian final last Sunday but at least had the distinction of taking a set 6-0 off the five-time Wimbledon champion. 'I should have been more patient,' Capriati said afterwards of the deciding set.

The United States, too, is impatient for her to prove she is 'the next Chris Evert'.

The electronic line-calling system that was being tested during the early rounds of men's and women's qualifying for the US Open will not be used in the main event following the discovery of technical problems. One defect resulted in a certain brand of tennis shoe, called K-Swiss, setting off the electronic sensor.