Tennis: Lendl feels twilight's last gleaming on Huet's special day: Former champion and world No 1 falls at first hurdle in the French Open as the leading women waste little time in dispatching opponents

A CLUB player from up the road figuratively tapped Ivan Lendl on the shoulder in the first round of the French Open here yesterday and indicated that a great career was drawing to a close.

Stephane Huet, who defeated the three-times champion, 3-6, 7-5, 6-0, 7-6, lives two miles from Roland Garros. Usually, the only two weeks of the year he does not have access to the world's most famous clay courts is when the championships are played.

This year is an exception. He qualified for the event at the third attempt, his most notable achievement. A couple of months ago he was defeated by Britain's Chris Wilkinson in the final of the French satellites. Not only was Huet playing his first match in a Grand Slam, but he has yet to win a match on the ATP Tour and is ranked No 297.

Only his neighbours expressed interest when 'Monsieur Nobody', a 22-year-old left-hander ranked No 23 in France, drew Lendl, the world No 7, a man who once dominated at No 1 for a record total of 270 weeks.

The majority of the nation's tennis followers were lamenting that Guy Forget was not fit enough to play and that Henri Leconte did not have what it takes to defeat Sergi Bruguera when the Spaniard is in the kind of form that won him the Monte Carlo Open last month.

What they failed to take into account was a young man's desire to make a mark and an older player's diminishing powers and fragile confidence. Lendl, who had not been defeated in the first round of the French Open since Jose-Luis Clerc caught him cold on his first appearance, was worn down on Court One, which resembles a bullring, on the debut of his opponent.

It must be mentioned that Lendl pulled up short and was limping after attempting to change direction at 4-4 in the fourth set. How much this affected the result is difficult to assess. 'I had a little trouble sliding to my right on my right foot, and stepping forward on the right foot also,' he said. 'There were a couple of drop shots I could have had, but whether that would have changed it, I don't know.'

Towards the end, Huet was beginning to cramp, so it became a matter of survival, and the Frenchman proved the stronger, winning the tie- break, 7-2. Not that Lendl would agree. 'I thought if I could have pulled through the fourth set I would have been all right, because I was the fresher one,' he said.

Lendl, who skipped the French championships to prepare for Wimbledon in 1990 and was missing because of injury in 1991, lost to Jaime Oncins, of Brazil, in the second round last year. Even so, the 33-year-old has spoken of the possibility of adding to his eight Grand Slam singles titles on the slow and even-paced surfaces.

Some of his recent experiences on clay suggest otherwise. He was dismissed by Marcelo Filippini, of Uruguay, 6-2, 6-1 in 68 minutes in the opening round of the Italian Open, and cobbled the same number of games against Bruguera in the second round in Monte Carlo.

'I have played some good tournaments, too,' he said. 'It's just a question of when I play well and when I don't. You can't just give up one day. When I was 25 and I had a day like today nobody questioned it. There is no reason to question it now.' There is, and by the look of disappointment on Lendl's face, inwardly he was conducting an inquisition.

'I am not very happy, that's a nice way of saying it,' he said. 'Today I just didn't seem to hit the ball well enough to hurt him from the back. I knew that he played left-handed with a double-handed backhand and liked to take chances, and that's pretty well what he was doing. I think the crowd helped him a lot, because he was very tired and they kept him going.'

As Lendl prepared to pack his bags and head for England, perhaps to play in next week's Direct Line tournament at Beckenham, Huet savoured the greatest day of his career.

'The idea of playing Lendl was magical,' he said. 'During the first four games I felt very tense, but when I won the second set I really thought I could do something.'

Mary Pierce, Montreal's gift to French tennis, was also so keen to impress that she swept a compatriot, Catherine Mothes, off an outside court, 6-0, 6-0, in 37 minutes, only three minutes longer than Steffi Graf's demolition of Natalia Zvereva in the 1988 final.

Gabriela Sabatini was also in a hurry, the third seed's impatience to finish the job pushing the duration of a 6-0, 6-0 win against Radka Zrubakova to 54 minutes. And Jennifer Capriati, the sixth seed, required only 45 minutes to dispatch Nathalie Herreman, of France, 6-0, 6-1. So much for slower courts]

Michael Stich, who won the Wimbledon doubles tile last year with John McEnroe, will have a new partner for this year's event. His choice is Wayne Ferreira, the South African who won the singles title at the Stella Artois tournament at London's Queen's Club last year.

Results, Sporting Digest,

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