Tennis: Rusedski's game needs a kickstart

French Open: Coach Lloyd stresses the importance of clay to Britons as Rafter stays on the fast track
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN TENNIS the words clay and patience are bracketed, like horse and carriage, love and marriage. Those who propose to plunder the honours at the French Open need to bring to the occasion stamina and fortitude in equal proportion to skill. Such is the dictum and such, it has to be acknowledged, is usually the truth of the matter. But occasionally, and gloriously, there erupts on to the ketchup-coloured courts of Stade Roland Garros someone prepared to apply bugle to lips and sound the charge.

There was Yannick Noah, who leapt and cavorted to the men's title in 1983, the sole Frenchman in the last 52 years to win it. Since then only two serve-volleyers have even made it as far as the final, a certain JP McEnroe in 1984 and Stefan Edberg in 1989. Then, two years ago, the cavalry reappeared in the matey Aussie shape of Pat Rafter, who galloped into the semi-finals before fatigue (and that archetypal baseliner Sergi Bruguera) felled him.

That Rafter again has the starting blocks in his kitbag and a gleam of intent in his eye was shown at last week's Italian Open, where the ability to serve hard and follow in for the volley took him as far as the final. Seeded third at the French and delighted by a resurgence of form after a bleak six months, Rafter can be guaranteed to give it a go in Paris.

If this is the battle plan of a player who prospers on faster surfaces, should not the British hopes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski hold similar intentions when the tournament opens tomorrow? Since their track record at Roland Garros is abysmal (Henman without a win at all so far, Rusedski one victory in the last three years), selective aggression is surely better than scuttling around on the baseline. This season Henman has shown encouraging indication of doing just that, though he would be better equipped for the campaign with a more dependable first serve, while Rusedski, in the record books as the fastest server in tennis, ought to be able to build positively on such an asset.

Patrice Hagelauer, the Lawn Tennis Association's recently-appointed performance director and former French Tennis Federation national coach, pronounced himself "very impress-ed" with Henman's progress. "He has the right attitude and it is just a question of adapting his strengths to the clay. It is possible to serve and volley at the French but it isn't the same type of serve. Like Edberg, you need to make the serve kick high to give more time to get to the net. Yannick used to come to the net behind a kick serve and with a little more confidence Tim could do that. He is learning fast."

John Lloyd, the British Davis Cup coach, maintains that Rusedski could be good on clay, or certainly better than Greg himself appears to think. "He has an excellent sliced backhand approach, the shot that used to win a lot of matches on clay for Roger Taylor, so it is logical he could be very good."

The looming challenge of Wimbledon is what dominates the thinking of the top two Britons, and rightly so, but Lloyd has this advice for them: "Doing well on clay can help your game for the rest of the year, particularly on grass. It will do wonders for confidence. Playing decently on clay will give Tim tremendous confidence and if he can semi-conquer clay it will show he is becoming a much more complete player."

However, both find themselves in a demanding segment of the draw. The seventh-seeded Henman, in top seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov's quarter, kicks off against a wily clay-courter, Morocco's Karim Alami, with the prospect of a fourth-round clash with the moody Marcelo Rios should he stay alive that long. Rusedski, in the same section as the champion Carlos Moya, will be more concerned about getting past the in-form German, David Prinosil, in his opening contest.

Both Brits will do well to be around at the close of the first week, as will Pete Sampras. The second-seeded American, still chasing his first Roland Garros title, is jammed between two stools. Having opted to cut back heavily on his schedule, he finds himself embarrassingly short of match play and form. The remedy is unlikely to emerge in time for Sampras to make much impression and Andre Agassi, despite a more demanding draw and a shoulder problem, may carry the Stars and Stripes deeper into the tournament.

The eventual winner could come from the K group. Richard Krajicek, fifth seed and an early threat to Rusedski, leads the aces table this season with 393 and can perform effectively on slower surfaces but Kafelnikov, the 1996 winner, and Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, champion in 1997, should pose more threat. Kuerten,in particular, is in top form with clay victories at Monte Carlo and the Italian Open and his new haircut, a severe short back and sides job, indicates his career has travelled significant distance since he samba'd to success here with shoulder-length hair and rainbow clothing two years ago.

Kuerten heads the strongest South American challenge for many years. In addition to Rios, whose effectiveness may be hampered by ongoing back trouble, there is a high quality group of Latins recently emerged from the junior ranks - Lapentti, Zabaleta, Puerta, Squillari and Meligeni - primed to inflict havoc.

French hopes, never very realistic, received a setback with the late withdrawal through injury of their new No 1, Jerome Golmard, though the youngsters, Sebastien Grosjean and Arnaud Di Pasquale, can be assured of lusty support.

Finally, there is the Spanish challenge. This is the time of year when IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch and his nation's king, Juan Carlos, clear their social calendar to be free to acclaim a compatriot in the Roland Garros finals. Last year Spain collected both singles titles and again impressive elements of the Armada are at anchor in the 16th arrondissement ready for the opening salvoes. Of the 11 men who gained direct entry Moya looks best equipped to win two years in a row, as Bruguera did for Spain in 1993-94.