Tennis: Moya's feet firmly on the ground

Tennis: Lazy days in Majorca are a distant memory for world No 1 as he seeks the experience to stay at the top
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AN OVERJOYED Carlos Moya telephoned his mother from Indian Wells, California. "Mama," he said, "I'm No 1." There was a pause before Pilar Moya responded. "Excuse me," she said, "who's there?"

The suspicion that somebody might be playing a joke arose because Mrs Moya was under the impression that her 22-year-old son needed to do more than win a semi-final last week to become the first man from Spain - let alone Majorca - to head the world tennis rankings since the advent of the ATP computer in 1973.

Reassured that the mission was accomplished, the Moya family settled down to absorb the media reaction. El Mundo's front page headline, "Moya lands in heaven," set the tone, and every publication rejoiced that their hero would remain in a state of grace for at least two weeks, because the next world rankings list is not due until after the 10-day Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Florida, which end on 28 March.

A year ago, Key Biscayne was taken over by thousands of flag-waving Chileans who arrived on charter flights for the final Sunday, when Marcelo Rios defeated Andre Agassi to supplant Pete Sampras as No 1. Rios spent a total of six weeks at the top, his cause not helped by injuries. Sampras rose again, winning Wimbledon for the fifth time and ending the year as No 1 for a record sixth time.

The effort exhausted Sampras, who missed the Australian Open in January and has since lost early in two tournaments, against Jan-Michael Gambill, an American compatriot, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and against Spain's Felix Mantilla in Indian Wells. That gave Moya the impetus to become only the 15th world No 1 in the history of the ATP rankings and sets a fascinating scene for the months ahead. Sampras goes to Key Biscayne determined to reclaim the No 1 position he held for a total of 262 weeks, six fewer than Jimmy Connors and eight less than Ivan Lendl, who holds the record of 270 weeks. Moya will also expect a strong challenge from Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Alex Corretja, a Spanish friend and rival, and Australia's Pat Rafter, each of whom have faltered within sight of the summit.

Moya, in contrast to Rios, cannot be accused of arriving at the top without a Grand Slam title to his name. He defeated Corretja in the final of the French Open last June, becoming only the fourth Spaniard to win the men's singles championship on the clay courts of Paris. Spanish players are raised on clay, the sport's slowest surface, but only Manuel Santana (1961 and 1964) and Andres Gimeno (1972) had triumphed in the French classic until Sergi Bruguera (1993 and 1994) kicked his countrymen's habit of wearing themselves into the dust in the series of tournaments en route to Paris.

Even more surprising than Moya v Corretja at the French Open, however, was the fact that the pair went on to contest the final of the ATP Tour Championship on an indoor hard court in Hanover in November, mocking the perception that claustrophobia is endemic in the men's game in Spain. To put the Hanover revelation in perspective, Moya and Corretja trained together at the Centro Alto Rendimiento Club in San Cugat del Valles, near Barcelona, on the only indoor court in the whole of Spain specifically designed for tennis. Three more are currently under construction at the same club.

Corretja advanced to the Hanover final with a three sets win against Sampras. Moya defeated Tim Henman in three sets. "The Spanish guys have got such variation on their groundstrokes," the British No 1 said. "I think Moya is the one that has that little bit more that stands out. He's got a deceptive serve, his forehand is very difficult to read, and he's a very good athlete for a pretty big guy."

Asked to compare the Moya match with his Wimbledon semi-final defeat by Sampras, Henman said: "I think they are very similar. I think I played better against Sampras, but I definitely couldn't have given more on either occasion."

Corretja won the Hanover final after losing the opening two sets, a testimony to his powers of recovery and also evidence that Moya was correct in the self-critical observation that he needed to improve his concentration if he was to become No 1. As a court artist, Moya, unlike Goya, sometimes flatters to deceive. But he tries to learn from experience.

"After I played my first final in a Grand Slam," Moya said, recounting a straight sets defeat by Sampras at the 1997 Australian Open, "I realised how difficult it was to get there. I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it again. I was still young, 20 years old. I thought if I could do it once, I could do it again. It happened in the French Open. I played really well. That final in Australia gave me a lot of experience. I know that's why I won the French. The US Open [last year] was the same. I didn't expect to play the semi-final. I was playing my worst tennis ever right before the US Open. But in the right moment, I won that [second round] match against [Michael] Chang [6-3 in the fifth set], and all the power and confidence I lost suddenly came back again."

The resurgence did not last long enough to save Moya from a four-sets defeat by Mark Philippoussis in the US Open semi-finals; nor was Moya able to quell the Australian's power over five sets in last Sunday's final in Indian Wells. But that was not allowed to detract from the elation of the folks back home.

Majorca, evocative of package holidays, is hardly a cradle of world class sport, although George Best is among those to have sown wild oats on the island during his summer sojourns from Manchester United. Your correspondent, in a former life, tried to keep track of Best in the days when he sunbathed on Bar Sol Beach, Palma Nova, and commenced most of his evenings with drinks and dinner at the Gomila Grill, in Palma's disco quarter. On the eve of his 26th birthday in May, 1972, Best fled from Manchester to Marbella and announced his retirement from football. He then hit a few balls at Lew Hoad's tennis ranch before making a temporary truce with United and heading for Majorca prior to pre-season training.

As for home-grown sporting notables, Majorca can call up Guillermo Timoner, who won six world cycling titles pedalling furiously behind a motorbike, and Juan Gomis, a world champion submarine fisherman. Moya, asked why there were not more tennis players, smiled and said: "Because it is an island, and the people of Majorca are very lazy."

Real Majorca's exploits in the European Cup-Winners' Cup have added some pep, although Moya's allegiance to his local club is surpassed by his strength of feeling for his adoptive Barcelona. Moya's skills with his feet are almost as impressive as those with his hands, and are often displayed in a kick-about with a tennis ball on the practice courts.

Last Christmas, Moya bet Real Majorca's Argentinian international goalkeeper, Carlos Roa, that he would beat him with three penalty kicks out of five. "No, that's too much," Moya was told by Hector Cuper, the club's trainer. "Make it two out of five." It was sound advice. Moya converted two of the five, and Roa had to treat him to dinner.

In common with many leading players, Moya touches a variety of bases. When not playing tournaments or training in Barcelona, he has a retreat in Monte Carlo. Boris Becker, as familiar in Monaco as in Munich and Miami, is having a house built in Majorca. The three-times Wimbledon champion may come in handy should Moya need extra homework with a serve-volleyer.

Tall and lean, Moya wears his hair long, rock style, and probably plays air guitar to CDs by his favourite groups, Aerosmith, U2, Bon Jovi and Queen. In July 1997 he had his hair cut short for a week of mandatory duty with the military reserves; another occasion when his mother was entitled to ask, "Excuse me, who's there?"

Spaniards in Top 10 since ATP rankings began in 1973



No 1 15 March 1999


No 2 23 August 1973


No 3 1 August 1994


No 3 30 November 1998


No 6 13 June 1983


No 7 17 September 1984


No 7 30 April 1990


No 7 14 November 1994


No 9 21 April 1997


No 10 18 May 1992