Tennis: Courier's forehand ready for business as usual: Guy Hodgson reports from Paris on a quiet American's bid for a third title

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IN THE Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Wars, boatswains would carry a short piece of rope with which they belted idling sailors across the head. A persuader, they called it, and certainly recipients of this rough justice needed no further encouragement to abhor corporal punishment. Tennis has its own form of brain-numbing punishment, too, but on the tour they call it Jim Courier's forehand.

The American's persuader thumps the ball with such power and accuracy that those on the receiving end are bullied off court. Courier's serve and backhand are no soft options but it is with the forehand that he brutalises. The action could come from an HMS Victory handbook: a full-blooded swing loaded with violent intent.

If that implies a lack of subtlety, then there is very little that is fancy about Courier. A 22-year- old from Dade City, Florida, he belts the ball from the back, straight and simple. He rarely comes forward on court, and he hardly pushes his personality upon you either. Instead he hides himself behind a screen of words most of which endorse the work ethic.

Asked whether he was excited after beating Richard Krajicek to reach today's French Open final, his reply was typical. 'I don't look at it as any different to the first or second round,' he said. 'It is going to work and clocking in, I guess.' He should try working on a production line.

When he was at the nearest thing in tennis to it, Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, it was Andre Agassi that the coaches purred about. Courier could not compete with his contemporary in terms of natural ability, but he did have buckets of will-power and it was this, and a belief he was being neglected, which eventually forced him away from Bollettieri. To date, Agassi has flamboyantly won one Grand Slam title, Wimbledon last year, while Courier has toiled to be one match way from his fifth. He will become the only man other than Bjorn Borg to win three successive French Open titles if he wins today.

He is ranked No 2 in the world, but is the player the others least like facing on clay. 'It is like playing against a wall,' the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev said last year after he had been suppressed in straight sets, gaining only seven games. 'The ball always comes back, and it comes back harder.'

The man hoping some of the bricks are loose today is the 10th seed, Sergi Bruguera, a man so quiet he makes Courier seem like a stand-up comic. He is another who believes in letting his tennis do his talking and it is on clay that he is most verbose.

The Spaniard, who is five months younger than today's opponent, has won seven titles in his career and all of them have been on the same surface as the one he was brought up on in Barcelona. Courier, an all-court player, has taken only four of his 13 titles on clay.

Indeed it is Bruguera's reluctance to perform on anything that is not red and dusty that has counted against him before in Paris. 'Clay-court specialists play as much as they can on clay to get enough points to be up in the rankings. They arrive here very tired while hard-court players are very fresh. I've learnt from that and played less,' he explained. It is just about the only subject that can drag more than a two-word answer out of him.

Coached by his father Luis, Bruguera's record at Roland Garros this time has included a straight-sets win over Pete Sampras, the world No 1, and a

6-0, 6-4, 6-2, victory against Medvedev in the semi-finals. Both illustrated the specialist's art, all looping top-spin and working the opponent into wide positions.

'Sergi didn't let me play,' Medvedev said. ' The spectators might have thought I was playing badly, but his pace was too good. The rhythm was too high, I wasn't ready for the speed. The other occasion I played an opponent like that was Courier last year.

'Sergi has the game to win the title but Jim is more experienced. The result will depend on confidence and luck.'

Given the precedents - four matches, three of them on clay; four wins for Courier - the feeling is that Bruguera will require a lot of both if he is to become the first Spaniard to win the men's title at Roland Garros since Andres Gimeno in 1972. The persuader carries a lot of conviction.

(Photograph omitted)