Tennis: Sampras to play it fast and smooth: Richard Evans in Melbourne on the the Australian Open tennis prospects

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The Independent Online
APART from Andre Agassi, prostrate in Las Vegas with some elaborately defined illness; Helena Sukova, forced to miss her first Australian Open since 1981 with a pulled hamstring, and Martina Navratilova who may feel that image-battered Aspen has more need of her on its ski slopes, the entire international tennis cast are ready for the Grand Slam curtain opener of 1993 at Flinders Park in Melbourne tomorrow.

For some it has been a struggle to get there. Ivan Lendl only allowed his name to go into the draw at the 11th hour after his coach, Tony Roche, had thoroughly tested a strained groin muscle on the hot and sticky Rebound Ace courts.

Meanwhile, here at the White City, in Sydney, a gaunt Mary-Jo Fernandez, who was suffering from a flu virus during the Hopman Cup in Perth, has been treading the kill-or-cure path in blistering heat with her coach Harold Solomon, rallying interminably with a man who rarely missed a ball in his playing days and still errs about once an hour.

This kind of dedication underscores the increasingly demanding battle for ranking points as the top players jostle for an early advantage on year-long tours that have prize-money totals of a minimum of pounds 22m for the women and upwards of pounds 36.5m for the men - the latter a rise of pounds 4.5m over 1992.

Seldom have so many top stars been so fast out of the starting blocks. Boris Becker, still buoyed by his triumph at the ATP World Championship in Frankfurt, wasted no time in earning his first title for 1993 at the new ATP Tour event in Qatar with a tight victory over Goran Ivanisevic, while in another new tournament in Jakarta, the top seed, Michael Chang, was playing Carl-Uwe Steeb, the No 2 seed in the final this weekend.

It was a similar story here at the New South Wales Open where, despite Richard Krajicek's first-round defeat against the defending champion Emilio Sanchez, the No 1 seed Pete Sampras came through to win the title yesterday 7-6, 6-1 against Thomas Muster, the Austrian fitness fanatic whose training this week has included 'warming-down' runs after his matches. Judging by the way Muster faded in the second set in temperatures of more than 100F, he would have done better to warm-down the Sampras way - at the backgammon board.

Sampras was happy to swap a defeat at the mind game against his coach, Tim Gullikson, for a victory on court. 'I haven't played my best this week but I'm getting there,' Sampras said. 'I'd rate my chances as good as anyone's in Melbourne.'

Shin splints - a problem that flared briefly this week - and other injuries have plagued Sampras on previous visits to Australia, but his smooth serve-and- volley style is well suited to the Flinders Park courts that will play fast if the heat holds.

Otherwise one has to look to the rejuvenated Becker, the 1991 champion; Jim Courier, the title-holder, who is as determined as ever, or the ever dangerous Ivanisevic, to grab the first Grand Slam of the year.

If form in the Rio Challenge exhibition in Adelaide was anything to go by, Stefan Edberg is still below his best and Petr Korda, who thrashed the Swede at Memorial Drive, could utilise his left-handed game to follow up last year's appearance in the French Open final with another in Melbourne.

Michael Stich, who gained confidence from helping Steffi Graf win the increasingly well-regarded Hopman Cup for Germany, opens up against the promising American Alex O'Brien. But one of the more fascinating first-round clashes involves the 18-year-old Andrei Medvedev from the Ukraine, considered the most dangerous floater in the draw, and the vastly experienced Australian Wally Masur. If Medvedev, who led Sampras by a set and a break in the first round here, survives that he could do serious damage to a draw that includes Korda and Krajicek.

It is hard to look past Monica Seles in the women's field, although Graf looked sharp in Perth and Jennifer Capriati scored a very impressive 6-4, 6-2 victory over Gabriela Sabatini in the semi-finals of the NSW Open. Capriati will meet Germany's Anka Huber in today's final.

Chris Bailey, the British No 3, joined Jeremy Bates in the main draw of the Australian Open, when he beat Andrew Florent, of Australia, 7-6, 7-6 in the final qualifying round yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)