Tennis: French window of opportunity for lesser types: Guy Hodgson on the open look of the contest to be fought at Roland Garros over the next fortnight

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The Independent Online
NO MATTER how sincere the regrets over Monica Seles missing the French Open, her absence will have pushed several sights higher. With the clay queen away, Steffi Graf will not be the only one arriving at Roland Garros this week with expectations. Not the Dickensian sort perhaps, but still with a glimmer of hope.

Seles loves playing in Paris. It is her court, her surface, and for the last three years, her title. With her in the field most players, even those whose clay-court skill is on nodding terms with that of the world No 1, would have seen the runners-up spot as their natural role; without her a few mice will be eyeing the playing field.

There is still Graf to overcome, of course, but her preferred surface is grass where the pace of her serve and forehand really count. On clay she is still the logical alternative to Seles, as her wins at the French Open in 1987 and 1988 testify, but she seems to have been affected more than most by the attack on Seles.

Graf has lived with death threats for years, but they could be dismissed as the work of cranks until a maniac knifeman attempted to disable Seles in Hamburg three weeks ago. Now the German takes warnings seriously, and that is taking its toll. 'I need to go somewhere quiet to prepare for Paris,' she said after winning the German Open last Sunday.

She wanted to escape the media attention Seles's ordeal brought, but she cannot get away from her doubts about whether it is all worth the stress. She once said she expected to retire in her mid-20s; in three weeks' time she will 24.

Certainly Graf's form, notwithstanding her victory, was patchy in Berlin. Mary Joe Fernandez took her first-ever set off her in the semi-final and Gabriela Sabatini, a psychological loose cannon, was the steadier player for most of the final. With Graf's record - 11 grand slam titles - opponents have mental barriers to overcome before they can beat you. Last week several were flattened.

Graf admits she is not playing well, which contrasts with the bounciness of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario who has reason to believe she can repeat her French Open success of four years ago during the next fortnight. The Spaniard has been the most successful player in pre-Parisian build-up, having reached six successive finals, winning four. 'I've been the most consistent player on the tour this year, so maybe I deserve to be No 1 right now,' she said. 'I'm playing with confidence and energy. I feel I can win every match.

'I'm not surprised by my success. I won two tournaments last year and reached the final of six others so I knew I was close to becoming one of the top players. I'm playing the big matches better, better than any other time.'

Her relentless roll up the rankings to No 3 has coincided with her working with Carlos Kirmayr, the coach who guided Sabatini to her one grand slam success, the 1990 US Open. Sanchez Vicario attributes her greater aggression to Kirmayr, and her increased readiness to come to the net. He has also made her fitter.

This time last year Sabatini was saying the same thing about the same man, which underlines the ephemeral nature of the player-coach relationship. The Argentine is now working with Dennis Ralston, whose emphasis seems to be on her suspect fitness. Last week she was stressing 'this is an important year for me'. She also said she felt stronger mentally, a recurrent theme that is not always backed by on-court evidence.

Exhibits A to Z recently concerning Jennifer Capriati suggest a mini-crisis. She left Berlin in tears after being beaten by Brenda Schultz, and there is little evidence of the joie de vivre which she brought into professional tennis just over three years ago. She has her father's broad build and, at 17, appears to be filling out in a way that will assist her power but not her mobility.

The prodigy America hailed as the next Chris Evert destroyed her teenage counterparts in the United States, but she has not developed her forecourt game and her volley is suspect, and is being exploited by older and wiser players. There is also a suspicion that she hankers after normality more than her peers although she could not have looked more disillusioned than she did this time last year, and within two months she was the Olympic champion.

While the horrific circumstances causing Seles's withdrawal has opened up the women's event, Andre Agassi's absence with tendinitis of the right wrist seems to point the men's title even more emphatically in one direction. The Wimbledon champion, a finalist at Roland Garros in 1990 and 1991, was a realistic challenger to the reigning champion, Jim Courier, a breed that, on clay, is becoming rare.

Courier is the second seed, but that is due to slavish adherence to world rank rather than logic. The No 1, Pete Sampras, might win in Paris, but to do so he will have to improve his record radically on a surface on which he has yet to defeat a top-10 player. Courier, who won the Australian Open in January, is the player the others respect and even fear.

'I always play wrong against him,' Goran Ivanisevic said after he had been beaten 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, in last Sunday's Italian Open final. 'He dictated everything. He was all over me. But not only me, everybody. Mentally, he is the strongest.'

Courier, unlike Sampras, has the patience to slug it out on the clinging surface, and also the knockout punch in his forehand. Ivanisevic left Rome disheartened by his mauling, which can be placed in context as he had comprehensively beaten Sampras well in the semi-finals.

Of the other contenders, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich and Boris Becker are not natural clay-court players, and the last of these has not inspired confidence by parting company with his coach, Gunther Bresnick, a week before a grand slam tournament. Ivan Lendl, whose appearance in Paris suggests he has given up hope of ever winning Wimbledon, is suddenly prone to lapses against the lower orders.

To find players in form and suited to the surface you need to go to the sixth seed and last year's finalist, Petr Korda, and the 1990 champion, Michael Chang, who is ranked ninth. He took a set off Courier in Rome last week which, given his opponent's form, was an achievement in itself.

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