Monfils drawing local eyes away from Federer's fight with Nadal

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The Independent Online

You would be hard pressed to find anyone at the French Open here this weekend expecting anyone other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to contest the men's singles final, but for the moment at least local attention will be focused elsewhere.

Gaël Monfils, a Parisian, won three of the four junior Grand Slam tournaments two years ago and is already the world No 28. It is arguable whether Richard Gasquet, another 19-year-old, is the greater French prospect, but the man from Béziers has struggled all year with injuries.

Much will be expected of Monfils over the next fortnight - the tournament has moved from its traditional Monday start and will begin tomorrow - if he can overcome a tricky first-round match against Britain's Andy Murray, who won when they last met a fortnight ago in Hamburg.

The two have known each other since they were 12, and met in the junior tournament here three years ago, Murray winning 6-4, 6-1. Murray denied Monfils the junior Grand Slam the next year by winning the US Open.

The Scot, who will be working here with Leon Smith, his coach from his junior days, pending the appointment of a permanent replacement for Mark Petchey, recognises that Monfils may not have been at his best in Hamburg after reaching the semi-finals in Rome the previous week.

"He can play very well on clay, but it's always very tough mentally for the young guys after you've had a good week," Murray said. "I was pretty fresh in Hamburg. But here there will be no excuses from either of us.

"Gaël's very talented and great physically. He defends very well but he's not as good coming forward and volleying. You have to try and get him up to the net and I think I can do that." Monfils said Murray had had to play "a regular match, nothing more" to beat him in Hamburg. "The problem was my state of mind, which was not good," the Frenchman said.

Murray practised yesterday with Tim Henman, who is playing with renewed confidence after overcoming his back problem. The former British No 1 practised earlier this week with Kenneth Carlsen, the world No 109, and meets the Dane again in the first round tomorrow. "He's a good player, though he's not as confident on clay," Henman said.

Having made major changes to his training regime in order to strengthen his back, Henman said he was feeling in his best shape for nearly two years.

If Henman beats Carlsen he is likely to face Dmitry Tursunov, the Russian who knocked him out of Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open this year. David Nalbandian, the No 3 seed, would be Henman's likely opponent in the third round.

Greg Rusedski, the British No 1, should beat his first opponent, Paul Capdeville, a 23-year-old Chilean ranked No 124, but would probably face Mario Ancic, the No 12, in the second round.

According to the bookmakers, 126 of the 128 players in the men's draw are playing for the minor prizes. On Betfair yesterday Nadal was available at around evens, Federer at about 2-1, David Nalbandian at 33-1 and the rest at 60-1 or more.

This is traditionally the least predictable of the Grand Slam tournaments, but Nadal and Federer have dominated this year's clay court season. Nadal, the defending champion, has equalled Guillermo Vilas' 29-year-old record of 53 successive wins on clay but would probably have preferred an easier first-round opponent than Robin Soderling. The 21-year-old Swede, the world No 49, has beaten Tommy Haas and Nikolay Davydenko on clay this year.

Federer, however, is in the tougher half of the draw in that it includes Nalbandian, the only player who has looked close to challenging the supremacy of the top two in recent times. Federer was due to start tomorrow against the highly experienced Arnaud Clement, who took a set off him in Miami earlier this year, but the Frenchman withdrew last night with a groin injury and will be replaced by a lucky loser.

This is the only Grand Slam tournament Federer has yet to win as the Swiss seeks to become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major crowns. The world No 1 admitted yesterday that the prospect made him a little more nervous than usual. Nadal beat him in the semi-finals here last year and has won their three subsequent meetings.

Amélie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, Nadia Petrova, Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne are the top five seeds in what looks to be a much more open women's competition.