Top players' absence gifts Hewitt title opportunity

Imagine next month's Monaco Grand Prix without the Schumachers, Barrichello, Button and Montoya and you have this week's Monte Carlo Masters tennis championships in a nutshell.

The world's top two, Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, and Andy Roddick, the US Open champion, along with the charismatic Andre Agassi, chose not to come, and, to compound matters yesterday, Juan Carlo Ferrero, the French Open champion, stuttered to a halt on the first lap. Ferrero, who was hoping to equal Ilie Nastase's record of winning the title three years in a row, was eliminated in the opening round by Alex Corretja, his 30-year-old Spanish compatriot, 6-2, 6-3.

Corretja, currently ranked No 100 and here on a wild card, played commendably well, but was helped by his opponent's errors. Ferrero's display confirmed that his semi-final defeat in Valencia last week by another countryman, the 20-year-old Fernando Verdasco, was more ominous than was at first thought. Ferrero yesterday refused to give a customary post-match interview, and will be fined by the ATP Tour.

So we are left to admire the efforts of the remaining big names as they attempt to enliven the tournament. Competitors such as Lleyton Hewitt, the former Wimbledon and US Open champion.

On his only previous visit to the clay courts here two years ago, Hewitt was on top of the world but had the misfortune to be drawn against Carlos Moya, the Spanish former French Open champion, and was eliminated in the first round.

Yesterday, ranked No 19, Hewitt was drawn against Julien Benneteau, a talented Frenchman with a wild card, ranked No 113. The Australian was made to struggle, but at least left a visible footprint by winning, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. The 22-year-old Benneteau was primed to give a good account of himself after advancing to the fourth round of last month's Nasdaq-100 Open, where he was within two points of defeating Guillermo Coria, a French Open finalist last year.

Hewitt, having netted a backhand to lose serve at 3-4 in the opening set, won the first five games of the second set. The Frenchman also lost his serve in the opening game of the final set, but he broke back immediately and competed on equal terms until Hewitt broke to love at 4-4, roaring with relief.

While Hewitt agreed that it was difficult to adjust to the different balls in use at various tournaments, Marat Safin said the balls did not bother him as much as his diminutive Belgian opponent, Olivier Rochus, who defeated him at Wimbledon in 2002 and took the opening set in their match yesterday: "He has very good hands and plays very fast," Safin said, having recovered to win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

The Russian, who is based in Monte Carlo, then left to attend the Champions' League semi-final between Monaco and Chelsea with a ticket courtesy of Roman Abramovich. Asked if he knew the Chelsea chairman, Safin smiled and said: "No, not personally. Friend of the friend of the friend of the concierge of the hotel where he is staying."

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