Tennis: The new order armed with gifts: Simon O'Hagan watches a rising Russian and a Basque earning back-handed compliments

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IN THE land where the chihuahua is just another fashion accessory, two 20-year-olds last week showed that tennis's top dogs have no reason to be preening themselves. As the outdoor season began in earnest in the chic surroundings of the Cote d'Azur, the style leaders were a Russian who likes fishing in the Black Sea and a Basque with the most bizarre forehand in the game. Whether either of these things will catch on remains to be seen.

In the literal sense Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Alberto Beras

ategui are big names already - rather too big if you are an umpire or a headline writer. Between them they certainly have more syllables than titles. Though it is safe to say that it will not stay that way for long.

Kafelnikov is the Russian who did the paparazzi no favours when he knocked Andre Agassi out in the first round of the Monte Carlo Open last Tuesday, thus cutting short Brooke Shields's visit as well. Not that a tournament at which Prince Albert shows up to have lunch on the terrace overlooking the centre court is ever going to be short of Hello]-style photo-opportunities. Kafelnikov then went on to beat Michael Stich before finally succumbing to the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in yesterday's semi-final.

A wiry 6ft 3in with flaxen hair, one of the more innocent- looking gamblers in his hotel casino last week, Kafelnikov has risen to 41 in the world rankings in only his second year on the tour. His first title came at Adelaide at the beginning of January, but it was when he took Pete Sampras to five sets at the Australian Open a fortnight later that he was really noticed.

He then won a tournament in Copenhagen, but when the tour moved on to clay at the end of March, it seemed to leave him behind. Three successive first-round defeats did nothing for his feelings about the surface, and nobody is more surprised than Kafelnikov by his subsequent progress.

Asked what Kafelnikov's weaknesses are, Medvedev - a practice partner and friend since they were 12 or 13 - says he cannot think of any. 'He was always much more talented. I was practising a lot and he was beating me by talent, so I am happy that he is working to improve so much.'

Medvedev may be biased, but it's clear that Kafelnikov is exceptionally gifted, with a poise about him even on a surface which can make a lot of players look mere sluggers. And as well as groundstrokes that combine grace and power, he has the big serve that suggests grass, which he professes to dislike, could in fact suit him. This year's Wimbledon will be his first. Medvedev says Kafelnikov he will need to bend his knees more if he is to profit on grass, but there are enough attributes there already for him to do a lot of damage.

Other leading players in Monte Carlo - Agassi, Courier, Stich and Stefan Edberg - have acknowledged Kafelni

kov's achievements, though some with more generosity than others. Agassi explained his defeat almost entirely in terms of his own failings, while Kafelnikov said after his victory over Stich - his third in all - that he felt the German still did not rate him. If that is the case, then Stich was not saying so.

It is too early to say whether Kafelnikov has the personality to enliven a tennis scene of which it has become almost a cliche to say that there are no longer any characters. His tennis is fresh and flowing, his demeanour off-court rather dreamy. With the joky Med

vedev, who though technically a Ukrainian regards himself as a Russian, he forms an engaging partnership.

Berasategui, meanwhile, is the latest in a growing line of players from Spain to have prospered amid the resurgent tennis scene there - the result both of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's success in the late Eighties, and of the millions of pesetas generated by the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

In the final of the Nice tournament a week ago, Berasategui had a stunning victory over Courier, and sustained his form through to the third round at Monte Carlo. But then he came up against the French Open champion and his compatriot Sergi Bruguera.

'The best clay-court player in the world,' is how Javier Duarte, Berasategui's coach, describes Bruguera, and although Duarte's young charge took the first set on a tie-break, he then fell apart, suffering from cramp and exhaustion, and failed to win another game.

The clay-court game, played in the classical manner of the Spaniards, is in many ways the most demanding form of all. The first set between Bruguera and Berasategui on Thursday was less a tennis match than a war of attrition as both men fought it out from the baseline. No wonder Bruguera pulled out of Wimbledon last year after winning in Paris - though he says he expects to be there this summer.

The pudgy-legged, slightly shambling Berasategui may not be. Faced with an alien surface for which he does not have the serve, he will want to concentrate his efforts on the French Open, the ultimate test of the clay-court specialist. Berasategui looks ready to improve on his two previous showings there, losing once in the first round and once in the second.

If he does miss Wimbledon, it will mean a chance gone for many people to study a forehand which Duarte says is unique in world tennis - played with Berasategui's arm twisted forwards so that the ball hits the same side of the racket as it does on the backhand. Think about it. Or better still, go and pick up a tennis racket and try it for yourself.

Strange and inhibiting though this would be for almost anyone else, it somehow enables Berasategui to impart phenomenal power into the shot - at times against Courier even greater than the American could muster, and he is one of the hardest hitters around.

'He grew up playing that way with his father,' Duarte explains. 'It was like that when I first came to him when he was 17. It's a natural shot for him. It would be wrong to change it. If we did that I think we would lose all his potential.'

And after all, what's an arm turned upside down when that's what you're trying to do to the tennis world?

(Photograph omitted)

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