Ferrero made for Paris in the spring

French Open: Agassi and Federer the form men but Spanish and Argentinian armadas lie in wait
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The Independent Online

Early June is when Juan Carlos, king of Spain, authorises an optional entry in his diary to take in the final weekend of the French Open, just in case one or more of his subjects is in the running. He has watched Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Sergei Bruguera, Carlos Moya and Albert Costa hoist the cups at Roland Garros, and his presence could be required again.

Not, alas, for the women of Iberia, whose cause has withered since the bubbly Arantxa called it a day, but certainly for the armada of males who will be scuffing the ketchup-coloured clay from tomorrow onwards in pursuit of the first prize of £600,000. With 13 men as direct acceptances into the draw, Spain is the leading nation, and it can boast three of the top contenders: Juan Carlos Ferrero, Moya and the defending champion, Costa.

Another armada has hove into sight this year, the clay-hugging Argentinians. So richly has their cause prospered that they filled all four semi-final places at the Masters Series event in Hamburg last weekend, and they have claimed nine direct places in the field, with the diminutive but hard-hitting Guillermo Coria perhaps their brightest bet for Paris honours.

Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, seeded second and fifth respectively, appear the pair most likely to insert a meaningful oar between these two impressive fleets, and there could hardly be a more disparate couple in the tournament. Agassi is American and 33, Federer Swiss and 21, but both are in rich form.

Last week's announcement that Steffi Graf is expecting their second child scuppered any lingering daydreams that Mr and Mrs Agassi might be entering the mixed doubles, as Andre had promised in the event of winning the Australian Open, which he duly did. Since then the ageless Las Vegan has added titles in San Jose, Miami and Houston, lifting his total to 58, and he has benefited from a decent draw, with Belgium's Xavier Malisse a possible third-round opponent, the 1996 champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the fourth and then the dangerous, seventh-seeded Coria.

Agassi is short of matches on the clay of Europe this year, but his Houston title was captured on the surface and he remains in robust fettle, deservedly optimistic about adding this year's championship to the one he won in 1999. Agassi will seriously fancy his chances if he survives the first week, which usually carries away a big name or two. Since his only venture into Europe this season ended in defeat at the Italian Open by a qualifier, Spain's David Ferrer, he will need no reminding to tread carefully.

Federer's year has been even more successful than Agassi's. He goes into Roland Garros having won more matches, 38, than anyone else on the men's tour and has taken three titles: Marseille, Munich and Dubai. It should have been four but, having reached the Rome final earlier this month, he then tripped over his own confidence and was seen off by one of the lower-deck Spaniards, Felix Mantilla.

It was Mantilla who offers a clue to those opposing Federer over the next fortnight as to how they might go about beating him. "Roger can overrun you with those big forehands, but his backhand isn't strong," the Spaniard says.

Perhaps not, but Federer will be entitled to expect to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam for the first time. He admits, however, that he fancies his chances more on Wimbledon's grass.

The chances of the top seed, Lleyton Hewitt, have been rubbished by Costa. The defending champion claims the Australian "is not No 1 on clay because he doesn't have the power". While it is true that only one of Hewitt's 19 titles has been won on clay, Costa may live to regret his dismissal, since the two could meet in the quarter-finals.

Hewitt, who downed Costa on clay in the 2000 Davis Cup final in Barcelona, concedes: "It will be a challenge in Paris, but I have always liked challenges." Before that, Hewitt may find himself up against the French crowd's overseas favourite, the three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, from Brazil. Since the last of those victories, in 2001, Guga's mobility has been hampered following a hip operation. He is seeded only 15th, and admits: "It's a new career for me. So if I win again it will be like starting all over."

This is the 20th anniversary of Yannick Noah's annexation of the title. Since then no Frenchman has managed a repeat, and the immediate prospects are not glittering, with Sebastien Grosjean, beset by thigh problems, their best hope, at least until Richard Gasquet, the boy wonder from Béziers, gets more kilometres under his bonnet.

Marat Safin, who (to borrow from Marlon Brando) could have been a contender, has pulled out with a recurrence of wrist trouble, and he is joined on the sidelines by Richard Krajicek (elbow) and Tommy Haas, whose shoulder continues to bother him.

Tim Henman reports his own shoulder as behaving well, but it may not get too much of a test. He starts against the bouncing Belarussian Vladimir Voltchkov, but a peek at the third-round prospects reveals Ferrero lying in wait. Things are even bleaker for Greg Rusedski's return after eight months. He faces the fast-rising Nikolay Davydenko, winner in Adelaide and Estoril this year. Should he get through that one, Hewitt is next.

Having caused a sensation by losing last year's final, Ferrero is in the sort of form to go one better. Made a note of that, Your Majesty?

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