Tennis: Duel of the Barcelona baseliners: Simon O'Hagan in Paris reports that today's all-Spanish men's singles final has caused more debate on the poverty of modern tennis

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The Independent Online
THE STREETS will be empty in Barcelona, but in Baltimore, forget it. The American television commentators could not hide their dismay when Sergi Bruguera beat Jim Courier in the French Open championships here on Friday to reach today's all-Spanish final - the first there has been in Grand Slam history - against Alberto Berasategui.

There was some polite talk of Bruguera being steady if unspectacular. But then civilities were dispensed with. 'One of the worst best players there's been,' was how the title-holder found himself being described - a bit rich considering who he had just beaten, and a remark that said rather more about the battle for US television ratings than it did about Bruguera's merits as a player. OK, the commentator might have added, Courier's a bit of a plodder too, but at least he's our plodder.

In Paris over the past fortnight it has been possible to detect a split in the way the tennis is perceived. There is the American view, as expressed in Sports Illustrated's recent attack on the game, which holds that it is boring its way into oblivion, and that the sight of Bruguera standing 10 yards behind the baseline hitting topspin forehands all day is hardly going to reverse the process.

Then there is the European view, which prefers to look at the evidence of Roland Garros itself: a superbly run tournament, full of interesting tennis, packed every day by a knowledgeable crowd who would probably tell you to go and jump in the lake in the Bois de Boulogne if you were to try to convince them that they were being taken for a ride.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two. With the exception of Thomas Muster's five-set defeat of Andre Agassi in the second round, no men's match has been a classic. And the way the ties that looked as though they could be - notably the Courier v Sampras quarter-final - have failed to live up to expectations has indeed been disappointing.

All the arguments for and against the baseline style of play that the clay courts of Roland Garros encourage in the end come down to taste. You either like watching two players trying to work out how to beat each other from the back of the court or you do not. But the people who complain that the rallies at Wimbledon are too short cannot also complain that those they see here are too long.

Where does this leave today's final? Promising rather more than American television would have its viewers believe. For although Bruguera and Berasategui have a lot in common beyond their nationality - indeed, they both live in Barcelona, though Berasategui was born near Bilbao - there is enough of a contrast between them to suggest that the match could be as fascinating as it will be hard-fought.

Berasategui, the first non- seed to reach the final since Mikael Pernfors in 1986, is a committed baseliner even by Spanish standards. But that does not mean he plays percentage tennis. With his bizarre and devastating forehand, hit with the same face of the racket as the backhand, he can produce winners from anywhere.

The speed he plays at is astonishing, too. He wastes no time between points on his service games and thus builds up an unstoppable momentum. The statistics tell their own story: in six matches he has played only 15 sets - two of his opponents retired early - dropping none, and spent a mere seven and a half hours on the court.

Berasategui has come a long way since his father built the family a tennis court when he was a child. The unorthodox grip that enables him to hit his wrong-way-round forehand was already well established by the time he went to tennis school in the United States, where it survived various attempts to turn it into something closer to what you would find in the coaching manual.

Since returning home, Berasategui has been part of the upsurge in his country's tennis which Juan Avendano, Spain's Davis Cup captain, puts down to a group of talented coaches all coming along at the same time. He accepts that Berasategui's forehand will spawn its imitators, 'but there's nothing wrong with that. I tried it myself once, but I found it very difficult.'

Avendano says he cannot divide the two finalists on current form. Berasategui, he suggests, is perhaps too dependent on his forehand, but scores over his friend with his mental approach, which is noticeably more relaxed. Bruguera, three years the senior, plays much more of a waiting game, preferring to open up the court before going for the kill. And he can at least claim to volley occasionally.

For all Berasategui's precociousness, the form book may well be right in favouring Bruguera. Under the sagacious eye of Luis Bruguera - his father and coach - the No 6 seed has lived with the pressure of being the defending champion, and survived a much more testing passage to the final. The second week looked especially tough for him and to get past Patrick Rafter, Andrei Medvedev and then Courier at the cost of only one set was a great achievement.

French Open finals often have little relevance to Wimbledon, but this one, between two dedicated clay-courters, has even less than most. Berasategui will not be at the All-England Club, and although Bruguera says he will - his first visit to the tournament in four years - we cannot expect too much of him on a surface he dislikes. But why should either man worry about Wimbledon? Roland Garros is the pinnacle for them, and that is why it could prove to be a match to remember. But don't try telling the Americans that.

(Photograph omitted)

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