Tennis: Spaniards rejoice in a civil war

Ron Atkin previews a friendly final which highlights a nation's control on clay
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The Independent Online
THE glum faces of the ticket touts outside Stade Roland Garros told the whole story. The Spanish Armada was at anchor in the French Open and business had nose-dived.

With the World Cup about to occupy centre-stage, this afternoon's men's final between Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja may be big news in Iberia but it is not likely to wow the good people of Paris anymore than did the only previous all-Spanish Grand Slam final (here in 1994, between Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui). King Juan Carlos turned up for that one and there will be a royal presence today, too, this time the king's daughter, Christina.

However, nobody can argue that the Spanish haven't deserved it. Their battalion of tennis players, men and women, have sometimes seemed the only people in Paris not on strike over the past few days. The 24-year- old Corretja, seeded 14th, has stained his socks with the red clay of Roland Garros as he laboured for 14 hours and 22 minutes to reach his first Grand Slam final. One of his six matches, the third-round victory over Argentina's Hernan Gumy, dragged on for a record five hours 31 minutes.

By comparison Moya, 21 years old and seeded 12th, has enjoyed a breeze, spending an average of only two hours five minutes over his matches, possibly because he has looked the sharper and is the man in form following his victory in Monte Carlo last month. Moya, whose long black hair and chiselled good looks make him tennis's male crumpet version of David Ginola, dipped into the Beach Boys to describe his confidence. "Before I came here I had a good feeling, good vibrations. Now here I am in the final."

It is Moya's second Grand Slam final, following his straight-sets defeat by Peter Sampras at the 1997 Australian Open. "I was a bit surprised by getting to that final in Australia," he admitted. "But here is different. Maybe one Grand Slam final is a coincidence but I don't think two times can be a coincidence. That means I am a good player. I have improved my game and now I know what I want. I am a year older and more experienced, much fitter and mentally stronger. Also more patient."

Perhaps the biggest problem for the finalists is that they are good friends who travel together, dine together and spend long hours walloping balls at each other on the practice court.

"I've been working my whole life to get into a Grand Slam final and now I have to play a really good friend," said Corretja, who comes from Barcelona. "So I think we have already won, both of us, and that's the most important thing. No matter who becomes the champion, we have already won the tournament. And we're still going to be friends, whether I win or he wins. So we are going to have a big party in this final."

Today's match is a supreme example of the continuing excellence of Spaniards on clay. They now dominate the European outdoor season as a matter of course and got 19 men into the main draw here. "A big reason for this success is that we are all concentrated in one centralised location in Barcelona," said Moya's coach, Jose Perlas. "It gives us a chance to share ideas and methods. It's a bit of a laboratory."

Friends and relatives are flying in from Moya's island home of Majorca. He will also be joined by his girlfriend, the 18-year-old Romanian player Raluca Sandu, if she loses in the qualifying rounds of this week's women's event in Birmingham. In the WTA Player Guide she lists "Carlos Moya's footwork" as something she admires. With a strong contingent also guaranteed from Barcelona the VIP box will be as much part of Spain for the day as the Court Central, where Manuel Santana (1961 and 1964), Andres Gimeno (1972) and Bruguera in 1993 and 1994 have won for the country in the past.

Although Corretja leads their head-to-head by two matches to one, Moya is the form horse, having beaten his pal 6-3, 6-2 in this year's Monte Carlo quarter-finals. As Corretja admitted: "Carlos is moving really well. He is hitting his forehand with confidence, he's serving great and, most important, he's having fun on court. But after that Gumy match I feel really strong again and of course I will fight like hell."

Friends they may be, but with the Musketeers Cup and pounds 380,000 at stake, friendship can only count for so much, as Moya pointed out: "When you get on court you fight like crazy, you do everything, you try to step on him if necessary."

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