Nadal ready to gatecrash Federer's party in Paris

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The Independent Online

Begging Roger Federer's pardon, but nothing would suit the French Open and its discerning customers better than a repeat of the recent epic Rome final between Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria. That five-hour, 14-minute classic, with its heady mix of patience, boldness and incredible shot-making, added up to the most gripping match I have watched since the historic Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980. Not only was it the longest final in the 15-year annals of the ATP Tour, but it applied a torch to the cynical theory that clay-court tennis is a boring baseline bash.

Begging Roger Federer's pardon, but nothing would suit the French Open and its discerning customers better than a repeat of the recent epic Rome final between Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria. That five-hour, 14-minute classic, with its heady mix of patience, boldness and incredible shot-making, added up to the most gripping match I have watched since the historic Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980. Not only was it the longest final in the 15-year annals of the ATP Tour, but it applied a torch to the cynical theory that clay-court tennis is a boring baseline bash.

Nadal, the sensational Spanish 18-year- old left-hander who has already won five titles this year, all on clay, finally battered into submission the Argentinian who is acknowledged as the world's best oper-ator on that surface - or was, until Rafa rolled into the reckoning. Just to indicate that luck was not a factor, he had done the same thing a couple of weeks earlier in the Monte Carlo final, so when the season's second Grand Slam gets under way at Roland Garros tomorrow the air will be laden with expectation for a kid who has not played there before. Should he go on to lift the Coupe de Mousquetaires, Nadal would be the first to do so on his debut since Mats Wilander in 1982.

Nadal, whose 19th birthday falls on the day of the men's semi-finals, 3 June, was a late withdrawal from the French in 2003 with a shoulder injury, and last year he missed the whole of the summer because of a stress fracture of his left ankle.

No wonder he says: "My target at Roland Garros is just to play," and he will justifiably be a little apprehensive at the prospect of a third-round meeting with France's Richard Gasquet, Nadal's junior by 15 days.

Possibly inspired by the Spaniard, who has been his rival since the earliest days of junior competition, Gasquet has bounced back into form after a poor 2004 season truncated by chickenpox, and he ran Rafa close in a spirited Monte Carlo semi-final last month. The good news for Nadal is that the draw has left Coria in the opposite half of the field, so a repeat of Rome and Monte Carlo is on the cards. The less welcome tidings are that he might well need to oust Federer, the world No 1 and bookies' favourite, in the semi-finals first.

Roland Garros was the only one of the four Grand Slams Federer failed to garner in 2004. He suffered the heave-ho against the three-time Roland Garros champion and perennial favourite of the Paris crowds, Gustavo Kuerten, in the third round. The Swiss will be looking to do much better this time, since he has already captured six tournaments this year and won 41 matches, the same total as Nadal.

If Federer does last, as expected, into the second week he could tangle with Tim Henman in the quarter-finals, provided the British No 1 survives a potential fourth round with his nemesis, David Nalbandian of Argentina. On a justifiable high following his best-ever showing at the French Open, a semi-final spot, 12 months back, Henman will need to address the newly acquired habit of bickering with umpires and allowing poor calls to nettle him. That is what happened in Hamburg 10 days ago when he lost to another Argentinian, Juan Ignacio Chela, his possible third-round opponent here.

Britain's only other competitor, Greg Rusedski, finds himself in the same quarter of the draw as Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, typical of the ill-luck he has suffered this year. In the absence of Lleyton Hewitt because of a broken rib, Roddick moves up to second seed and will be hoping to improve on a dismal statistic of just three wins in four visits to the French.

Marat Safin, a victor over Federer and holder of the year's first Grand Slam in Australia, has won few matches and broken many rackets subsequently. As third seed he could face the 2003 champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in the third round, so may not even get as far as a quarter-final with Coria.

A feature of the women's game in recent months has been the spectacular return to form of the once omnipotent Belgian pair, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters. These two contested the Roland Garros final two summers ago, Henin winning for the loss of just four games, but have spent frustrating months on the sidelines with a viral problem and a wrist injury respectively.

Though Henin will walk into Paris on a run of 17 consecutive victories and three titles, while Clijsters has also been virtually unbeatable in the past two months, neither woman has recovered her true position in the rankings. Accordingly, both are positioned - Henin as 10th seed, Clijsters as 14th - to inflict serious damage on the higher-rated battalion of Russians, and since they are in opposite halves, another all-Belgian final could be on the cards.

The women's field suffered a blip with the late withdrawal of Serena Williams, the champion three years ago, citing renewed ankle problems, though on her most recent appearance, at an event in Rome, she looked out of condition and short of form. Sister Venus will be there as 11th seed, though she will not fancy an early collision with the holder, Anastasia Myskina, while the world No 1, Lindsay Davenport, is another American who will not have considered the draw did her any favours by placing Clijsters across her path in the fourth round.

Maria Sharapova, the Wimbledon champion and second seed, could benefit from a decent run in Paris by ascending to world No 1 before she returns to the All England Club next month.

Carlos Moya, the winner here seven years ago, predicts the men's champion will be a Spanish speaker, which narrows the options down to his own country or South America. He could well be right, and is talking up the chance of his fellow-Majorcan, Nadal. As for the women, the victory-podium speech could be made in Flemish, Walloon French or even, like last year, in Russian. But not, it would seem, in American-accented English.

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