Escudé sends out powerful warning after gentle return

Frenchman triumphs in Qatar after six months out injured while former coach belittles British No 2's claim of support in drugs case
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The Independent Online

It seemed fitting that Nicolas Escudé should win the fourth title of his career in the desert here at the Qatar Open on Saturday after spending six months in the wilderness.

When a hip injury caused Escudé to hobble out of the second round at Wimbledon last June, bringing another pain-ridden season to a conclusion, the 27-year-old Frenchman decided to close his mind to tennis for the subsequent four months.

Escudé had already decided to appoint a new coach to replace his compatriot Arnaud Casagrande, who had guided his career for four and a half years, but as with everything else to do with hitting balls over a net, he put any further thoughts on the subject on hold.

In contrast to the indomitable Austrian Thomas Muster, who famously turned up at tournaments as a spectator on crutches to keep in touch with the game while recovering from leg damage inflicted by a hit-and-run driver in Miami in 1989, Escudé switched off. "I saw a lot of my family, I took a holiday, I went to Amsterdam to see my brother, I did all the things I don't have time to do when I am playing tennis," Escudé said after defeating Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, in the final here, 6-3, 7-6.

"After four months I was ready to start physical training with a new coach," Escudé continued. "I took a piece of white paper and a pen and wrote down all the things I was looking for in a coach. Thierry Champion was the man."

Champion, a French former ATP Tour player, had previously coached Hicham Arazi, of Morocco - indeed, he was lucky not to be reprimanded by the umpire for illegally shouting instructions to Arazi during the deciding rubber against Britain's Greg Rusedski in the Davis Cup relegation tie in Casablanca last September.

"Having Thierry with me gives me a very good feeling," Escudé said. "There is a good atmosphere when we are on the court. We talk about improvements and about my approach to matches. But Thierry didn't change my game. I played the same way as I played before."

Escudé's game is not easy to tinker with. A natural left-hander, he was trained as a child to play tennis right-handed while remaining left-handed in other respects. Although Escudé was taught to play on clay courts, he developed an attacking style, much to his nation's gratitude in 2001, when he defeated Wayne Arthurs in the deciding rubber to win the Davis Cup final on grass in Australia.

Some of your correspondent's French colleagues contend that Escudé's game would prosper on his home clay courts, which are slower, if he were more inclined to go to the net.

"I play exactly the same way on clay," Escudé insisted. "I always come in behind my first serve. On clay it's difficult to come to the net on your first and second serves. It's dangerous when you play against very good players who can pass you.

"I play the same game on clay and hard courts and on indoor courts. Grass is different. I serve-and-volley on first and second serve. Grass is a typical surface. Some players don't have the footwork to play well on grass. For me, grass is about playing at the net. I play better on faster courts."

Given a wild card to compete on the rubberised-concrete courts at the Qatar Open (although listed at No 114, he was given a protected ranking of No 63 for eight tournaments on returning from injury), Escudé won without dropping a set.

Ljubicic, whose potent served helped him overcome Britain's Tim Henman in the semi-finals, was asked if he thought Escudé was capable of improving on a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon in 2001. "If he stays healthy," Ljubicic said. "His only problem is physical."