'Magician' dreams of Centre Court as stage for one last trick

Fabrice Santoro may have recently broken the record for Grand Slam appearances, yet, as he tells Paul Newman, the unpredictable French veteran still longs to grace Wimbledon's showpiece in a singles match

Fabrice Santoro knows that the end of his remarkable career is fast approaching but, as he prepares for the start of Wimbledon next Monday, the 35-year-old Frenchman has one more wish. "My dream is still to play a singles match on Centre Court," he said. "I've only ever played doubles on Centre Court. Maybe it will happen this year. I've asked the Wimbledon referee and he says that if we have a chance we'll do it."

Santoro has achieved so much since making his professional debut 863 matches and 20 years ago – his first match was against Luke Jensen at a Challenger event in Cherbourg – that he might consider an appearance on Centre Court as a fitting way to bow out. For many months now he has been fending off questions about retirement. "I haven't decided yet, but it will be pretty soon," he said. "There's a big chance I'll retire by the end of the year."

There are, after all, few records left for Santoro to break. In this year's Australian Open he overtook Andre Agassi's mark for the most appearances at Grand Slam events in the Open era when he played in his 62nd major, dating back to his first French Open in 1989. He last missed a Grand Slam event, Wimbledon, in 1998, with next week's tournament his 40th successive appearance at a major.

Since the world rankings were launched in 1973 there have been 23 world No 1s and Santoro has played 19 of them, including Jimmy Connors (who lost in Vienna in 1992), Ivan Lendl (who won in Nice in 1993) and Mats Wilander (who lost at Roland Garros in 1991). The only world No 1s he never played were Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Santoro also featured in the longest match in history when he beat Arnaud Clément 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 16-14 after six hours and 33 minutes in the 2004 French Open.

Without ever reaching the world's top 10, Santoro has been a model of consistency and fitness, having never dropped out of the top 100 since February 1997. He has won five singles tournaments and enjoyed even more success in doubles, winning 24, including Grand Slam crowns in Australia in 2003 and 2004.

Thoughts of retirement may have been reinforced by crushing defeats at this year's two Grand Slam events – in Melbourne, Santoro won only three games against Roger Federer and in Paris he won just one against David Ferrer – that have helped push his world ranking down to No 52. Nevertheless, those performances ran against the grain, for, like the best wines from his homeland, Santoro has generally improved with age. He reached his highest ranking of No 17 in 2001.

"When I was 24 I was very close to quitting," he recalled. "I didn't feel I was progressing and I wasn't having fun on the court. I think I became a better player because I got to understand my game and my opponents' game better. I also got to understand my body better. I started to appreciate better what I could and couldn't do.

"I think I've been lucky to have played most of my best tennis late in my career. It can be hard if you start off very strong and then you have trouble maintaining that high level. When I was 25 I was still improving and when I was 30 I was still improving. Even now I still feel I'm playing at a high level."

Born in Tahiti, where his parents were working, Santoro was a top junior and played in his first senior final when he was only 17. His most recent final was in Newport, Rhode Island last year, when he claimed his only singles title on grass. A keen student of the game, Santoro said: "That was the only time I played at Newport. I'd heard about the Hall of Fame and I've always been very interested in the history of tennis, so I wanted to see it."

One of the reasons for Santoro's success has been his unique playing style, which opponents can find impossible to fathom. Pete Sampras famously labelled him "The Magician", a tribute to his unpredictable use of spins, lobs and drop shots.

Andy Murray is one of several who say that Santoro is their favourite player. "It was very kind of Andy," Santoro said. "He's also a player that I enjoy watching. He's a very smart player and I like the way he moves. I prefer players like that rather than the players who just rely on their power."

The most remarkable shot is his double-fisted forehand, which he started playing as a boy when his father gave him a large racket. "When I started hitting some balls against the wall the racket was too heavy for me, so it felt natural to hit the ball two-handed," he said.

"A coach tried to get me to change to play single-handed when I was 11 or 12 but I didn't want to. I've never wanted to change. I don't think playing single-handed would have made me a better player. Playing double-handed on both sides is one of the things that makes me different to other players and they can find it hard to cope with."

The French and Australian Opens are Santoro's two favourite tournaments, while he rates his five-set victory over Marat Safin at Roland Garros in 2001 as the best match he has ever played. He considers Federer the best player he has faced, though chasing Agassi's Grand Slam record became a big incentive. "Agassi is one of the greatest players ever and I have huge respect for him," Santoro said. "Being in front of him on this list is the only way that I could ever be ahead of him."

In recent times Santoro has found the hard work needed to remain at the top increasingly demanding. "You just can't take three or four days off because your body is painful and stiff when you start working again," he said. "I love to play matches and I love being on the court as much as I ever did, but I don't like the travelling so much. I'd rather be with my family and friends, at home and sleeping in my own bed."

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