Clement left home alone as French endure savage week

French Open: Victory over compatriot leaves one flag-bearer for the hosts
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The French Open is a tournament which exacts a heavy price in its opening week. Just ask the French and Americans. On the 20th anniversary of the last occasion a French male, Yannick Noah, hoisted the Coupe des Mousquetaires, Arnaud Clement is the only one of the host nation to survive into tomorrow's fourth round. The 6-4 6-3 6-2 victory which he plundered from his compatriot and friend, Nicolas Coutelot, on Court Central yesterday ensured, moreover, that Clement is in the last 16 at Roland Garros for the first time.

Coutelot had got this far via the exhausting, and often harrowing, route of the qualifying competition. His second round win over last year's Wimbledon runner-up, David Nalbandian, was a contentious five-setter which left him, as he conceded, heavy in the legs for the clash with his friend and boyhood rival, Clement.

They had been close rivals in those early days. "At that time Arnaud was really no good at all," Coutelot grinned. "Now he's really mad at me for all those 6-1 6-1 defeats I got against him when we were both 12." Clement has moved far ahead these days, not only in the rankings but also in the on-court fashion stakes. With his green chequered headband, trademark sunglasses and two-tone goatee, he was a catwalk contrast to Coutelot in his plain white sponsor-free shirt and crumpled shorts.

Tennis has not been especially kind to Coutelot, who was complaining after the win over Nalbandian about "years of playing in shitty tournaments, sleeping in shitty hotels and having no money." Now, at least, he says he will be able to pay off his back taxes. Bravely, Clement insists being the last Frenchman will not bring pressure. "Of course I have a responsibility but the crowd will be behind me and the crowd are so beautiful here, they give us wings."

As for Andre Agassi, he views the loneliness of being the last American as just another challenge. "I hope there's another level to come, that's why I continue playing," said the 33-year-old after Friday night's straight-sets success against the Belgian, Xavier Malisse.

Winning in three sets also helps in this punishing fortnight, he added. "Just getting through a match, period, is the most important. But certainly, the easier you do it, the better it means you're playing. Against Malisse, I constructed well, played well at the right time at the end of each set and finished it off. I was controlling the ball a lot better. When it left my racquet, the shot was actually going where I told it to." Being the last one from the US still standing at a clay court tournament does not surprise Agassi. "It's never been a strength of ours, clay court tennis," he said. "When you grow up on hard courts you learn to play the game differently. Because you grow up on fast courts, you come forward, you hit the ball low, you hit the ball flat, you chip short, you get in.

"Playing on clay takes a lot of work, takes time. The guys we have in America right now are still young. So they have a lot of time, which is the good news." Next up for Agassi tomorrow will be the little-known Brazilian, Flavio Saretta, who put out the 1996 champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the second round.

On the absence from tennis this summer of his old pal and adversary, Pete Sampras, Agassi said: "When Pete was going through his slump I said the guy had earned the right and deserved the respect to play the game on his terms. If he wanted to go out there and continue losing, losing and losing, I said that was his choice.

"You had to leave him alone with that choice. Then he goes and wins the US Open. Now he is choosing not to play. I sort of have the same feeling about it. He has earned the right and deserves the respect to opt not to play. All I can really attest to, is the longer you're away, the harder it is. What Pete is going to be willing to suck up to get back is not something I'm informed about. I don't know what his desire is. Nor do I know what his work ethic is. I can just tell you that the longer it goes, the harder it's going to be."

The timing of "the curse of Roland Garros", a stomach virus which has affected a number of the players, was crucial in the third round match between Fernando Gonzalez of Chile and Holland's Sjeng Schalken. Gonzalez fell victim a few days ago but by the time he went on court he reported it was "nothing very serious." Poor Schalken could not say the same. After retiring at 7-6 6-3 3-1 down, the tall Schalken complained: "At dinner last night I was sweating bullets and I felt sick today. Every time I had to run my heartbeat was 200. Then I saw some clouds coming and hoped it was going to rain, but the weather didn't help me.

"Then in the third set, at 3-1 to Fernando, I pulled a muscle and thought if I continued I would get injured as well as ill. So I decided it was time to leave.

"There are about eight players here who don't feel good and I'm very unhappy that I'm one of them. Fernando had the same thing but he's over it now. In two or three days I will be over it, too, but I will be sitting at home."

The defending champion, Albert Costa of Spain, is hanging on to his title the hard way. The four hour 39 minute win over Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador by a score of 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-4 6-4 was the third successive five-set battle he had fought, and the second time he had come back from two sets down.