Tennis: Roland Garros unveils a splendour in the clay: Graf returns to scene of her first major title and worst nightmare on the opening day of French Open

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WE SHALL be well blessed if performances at the French Open prove to be half as spectacular as the new court which has risen from a crater in a corner of Stade Roland Garros during the past 12 months.

Only the stature of Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf has kept pace with the imaginative stadiums created both here and in Key Biscayne, Florida. And, regrettably, Graf has had few challengers in the absence of Monica Seles.

Court A - the label hardly conveys the splendour of a 10,000-seat show court complex which cost Fr250m (pounds 30.1m) and almost eclipses the main stadium - will be inaugurated at noon today.

Pride of place goes to the French charmer, Henri Leconte, who has been chosen to open the new court with a match against the Dutchman Paul Haarhuis. There, also, Sampras begins his campaign to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title by playing Alberto Costa, a Spanish qualifier.

Graf, by this time, probably will have completed her match, a shopping expedition, spent an hour in the Louvre and returned to her lodgings. The defending champion's first strides on the clay towards a fifth consecutive Grand Slam title are due to be taken on the Centre Court at 11am against Katarina Studenikova, a Slovakian ranked No 106.

It was on this court in 1987 that Graf won the first of her 15 majors, taking advantage of Martina Navratilova's nerves in the final. Approaching her 25th birthday, Graf is only three Grand Slam titles short of Navratilova's total.

The 37-year-old Navratilova is bidding adieu to the French as part of her farewell to the grand tour, and the women's game is in such a torpor that it would not come as a surprise if she advanced to meet Graf in the semi-finals.

Before this, Graf may give cursory handshakes to Mary Joe Fernandez and Gabriela Sabatini, two of the players who know they ought to have done better in previous encounters with the world No 1.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the second seed, at least has the pedigree to trouble Graf should they meet in the final. The Spaniard, it may be remembered, ended Graf's prospects of accomplishing a second consecutive Grand Slam in a traditional calendar year, defeating her in the final here in 1989. Two years later, in the semi-finals, Sanchez Vicario inflicted upon Graf one of her worst beatings.

It was hoped that Sanchez Vicario would test Graf when they met in the final of the Australian Open in January this year, but Graf did not give her the opportunity.

Graf, who has spent a year explaining how much she misses the competition from Seles, the victim of a stabbing, was asked yesterday for a reaction to the drugs allegation against the 18-year-old Jennifer Capriati.

'I was upset, and in a way I was sad,' she said. 'Then, thinking a little bit about it, I hoped it might have a positive side. It will not be such a bad thing if it makes her look at what she has done and what she has achieved and in what direction she is going to go.'

Though it is Court A's day, the Centre Court rightfully has claimed the pick of the matches: Andre Agassi, twice a finalist, versus Mats Wilander, a three-times champion who has taken a wild card.

Their last meeting was in the 1988 semi-finals. Wilander won, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-0, after three hours and 25 minutes, and went on to defeat Henri Leconte in the final.

Agassi had to wait four years to win a Grand Slam title, his 1992 Wimbledon triumph, and has since laboured against injuries and inconsistent form. His two appearances in European clay-court events this year en route to Paris have resulted in a first round defeat in Monte Carlo and a second round exit in Rome.

Wilander, 29, came out of retirement to reach the third round of the United States Open last autumn, and advanced to the last 16 at the Australian Open in January.

It promises to be a tough draw for the unseeded Agassi, who may also have Thomas Muster and Sergi Bruguera lining up to ambush him.