Tennis: Now for the test of strength

Ronald Atkin says the women will find out if power is enough
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UNLIKE THE men's Musketeers' trophy, which has ended in the grasp of some unexpected contenders in recent years, the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen goes unerringly into the embrace of a leading lady. Should you be contemplating a small wager on the destination of the French Open women's title don't bother looking outside the top 10, especially now that the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are comfortably established in that elite group. The only question, really, is whether the winner will triumph through skill or power.

Since Mary Pierce spent a winter in the gym and on creatine and Amelie Mauresmo unwrapped her double-door shoulders at the Australian Open the trend has become clear. It has been given an extra powerful shove by the Williams girls, who shattered the mould of the women's game by gunning down the opposition at Key Biscayne in March to set up a family final, won by Venus.

The formerly acknowledged big hitters like Steffi Graf and Monica Seles have been reduced to comparative popgun status, so it will be interesting to see whether the recent comment of Seles that power alone is still not enough to dominate is borne out.

The clay surface will, of course, defuse some of the explosiveness of the Muscled Ones, which will certainly come as welcome news to the top seed, Martina Hingis. The world No 1 is having another rewarding year, with last week's German Open in Berlin marking her fourth tournament victory of the season. So briskly was it accomplished that one disappointed spectator appealed to her during the course of her 42-minute final, "Not so fast, Martina."

Fast or slow, Hingis will not mind over the next two weeks, so long as the wins are logged up. "I am one of the favourites, not the favourite," she insisted before Friday's draw pitched her into a second-round confrontation with Mauresmo that will be the hottest ticket of the tournament. If Hingis survives she will not relish glimpsing the beaded hair-do of Venus Williams across the net as early as the quarter-finals.

The French is the lone Grand Slam so far unclaimed by the Swiss 18-year- old. Her best chance came two years ago when, short of match fitness after a riding accident, she was overturned by Iva Majoli of Croatia, the lone freak final in an event which otherwise in the last 12 years has produced only Graf, Seles and the present holder, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, as champions. So far has Majoli slipped since then that she is now down to 36 in the world, has won only five of her 14 matches this year and misses Roland Garros because of a shoulder injury.

So is that cosy little tripartite sequence about to be blown apart? The time seems ripe for one of the Williamses to delight their dad further by taking that remaining step up to Grand Slam fame or even for that other American boomer, Lindsay Davenport, to show that last September's US Open success was no passing fad. However, the Lenglen trophy has not been out of European hands since Chris Evert won in Paris 13 years ago.

Form indicates the time may have come for America. Venus Williams, like Hingis, has won four events, only once dropping a set in the final - and that looked very much like a diplomatic concession to her "little" sister at Key Biscayne. Venus's courtcraft has improved hugely and she lacks only the final touch of consistency which would propel her to the summit of the game.

Serena is more of a loose cannon or, more accurately, howitzer. When the shots and winners are flowing she looks formidable. When they are not, there tends to be a retreat into physical problems or spats such as the three-set quarter-final she lost to Sanchez in Paris a year ago.

Sanchez Vicario, whose unexpected 1998 win over Seles (her third Roland Garros title) was not hailed as it deserved to be because the Spaniard had torpedoed a fairy tale, has been operating a less punishing schedule this year and will bedifficult to put away. As seventh seed she faces a fourth-round clash with Serena Williams and a quarter-final against Jana Novotna, another with whom she is not on the best of terms after they squabbled as doubles partners.

Seles, winner in Paris three straight years from 1990-92, seemed on the brink of a sentimental fourth 12 months back. This time the third- seeded Seles has a straightforward-looking draw until a quarter-final look at the Pierce biceps while Graf, who has just clocked up her 1,000th career match, should not be unduly challenged either until a Davenport quarter-final.

The draw precludes any chance of a Seles-Graf final but they could provide a gloriously sentimental semi. Or, since they are in opposite halves, there might be a muscular all-French final, Mauresmo versus Pierce. But, with all those former champions as well as the Williams girls in town, don't bet on that either.