Tennis: Spectacular talent born for Centre stage

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WHEN Marcelo Rios lost to Francisco Clavet in an absorbing baseline battle on Wednesday on Court Two, there was a discernible feeling at Wimbledon that such varied all-court tennis could really grace the Centre Court. Lo and behold, the following day's schedule had two more exponents of baseline tennis on the game's greatest stage, and what a treat they served up.

The match pitted the 1998 equivalent of Henri Leconte, Hicham Arazi, a flashing and flashy musketeer from Morocco who has spent most of his life in France, against the Spanish conquistador Carlos Moya, who three weeks ago was crowned king of France. Yet in terms of grass, both players entered the arena almost anonymously.

Many of us were eagerly anticipating the clash of two atypical grass- court styles, and a 22-stroke rally in the first game signalled we were not to be disappointed.

For a while we could envisage the crown on Moya's head as he took the opening set and looked very sharp. Though not experienced on grass and still having to think much more than on clay, where everything comes naturally to him, winning the French Open has clearly given him confidence, and he seemed more in tune than Arazi both with the grass and with the big stage. Arazi looked less convincing on grass, and despite the flashing blade of his tennis sword, he clearly wasn't sure how to penetrate the king's defences.

Moya led by a set and took an early break in the second, but his short reign was cut short by a short burst of rain. Had the match been on clay, which both would no doubt have preferred, play would probably have continued throughout the drizzle, and if it had, Moya would inevitably have won - he had the confidence, Arazi has a tendency to get down on himself, and the trend of the first set and a half would have carried on.

Yet coming back from the rain break serving at 3-2 15-30, Moya's confidence started to look fragile. It's always difficult to serve immediately after a resumption, and Arazi seized his chance. He broke straight back, and a sea change started.

The standard of play remained very high. There were some breath-taking rallies covering the whole of the court, which left both players breathless and the crowd rapturous. But whereas Moya had been the king in the first set and Arazi the pretender, the Moroccan began to win the important points, and Moya's crown looked increasingly like it belonged in his kit bag with his discarded dirty shirts.

The whole character of the match changed. Arazi maintained his improvement and seemed increasingly to be taking to grass as Moya began to shake his head in frustration. Arazi took the second and third sets, striking his rasping backhand like a flashing rapier, and once again bringing back vivid memories of Leconte. It was a display of grass-court tennis at its best, the sort of tennis played not just by Leconte but many of the great all-round exponents of grasscourt craft, including McEnroe, Borg and Laver.

As the match wore on, Arazi seemed to develop a greater liking for playing inside the service line; it was as if he was overcoming his fear of going to the net, which had cost him dearly in his French Open quarter-final against Cedric Pioline. And fittingly he wrapped it up with a glorious left-hander's serve wide to the right-hander's backhand, finishing the match with a backhand volley into the open court.

While not one of the all-time great matches, what made it such an enchanting spectacle was how it demonstrated that not all tennis players are huge pounding machines and that skills commonly seen on clay and hard courts can be transposed to grass. But for that one needs a good grass court, on which the ball does rise a bit and on which the players can have confidence in reasonably true bounces.

As such, credit must go to Eddie Seeward and his groundstaff for the short cropped grass on the hard soil base. Despite being completely re- turfed since last year's Championships (the first time it has ever been renewed), the Centre Court is looking as good as I have ever seen it after the first week. Credit should also go to the scheduling committee for putting two relatively unknown grass court players on Centre when they could have been forgiven for giving them an outside court.

It would be nice to think Arazi could build on this and move decisively up the rankings. He is a great lover of partying, and in the past year this has harmed his tennis. But he was in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the quarter-finals of the French and now he is making an impression at Wimbledon - there's no question he is a big talent, a musketeer a la Henri Leconte.

Frew McMillan was talking to Chris Bowers