Why Martina does herself a disservice

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The Independent Online

The thought of Paris in the spring tends to go to people's heads. Indeed, it appears to have completely unhinged that 47-year-old romantic Martina Navratilova, who applied for a wild card into the women's singles for the French Open, which starts tomorrow. Even more astonishingly, the request was granted, which represents an embarrassing victory for sentimentality over reality.

Presumably Navratilova wishes to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her 1984 victory at Roland Garros, a tournament she won only twice. Otherwise, to borrow from a certain J P McEnroe, she cannot be serious. Some gentle mixed doubles, certainly. A more vigorous involvement in women's doubles, fine. Indeed, she won in Vienna yesterday with Lisa Raymond. But to enter one of the four greatest singles events for what must be classed as hit-and-giggle is demeaning, not only to the greatest female athlete this sport has ever produced, but also to a women's professional tour which has enough credibility problems to be getting on with.

Perhaps it was winning the mixed at Wimbledon last summer and reaching the final of that event at the Australian Open in January which tipped Martina over the edge, but she talked the organisers of last month's American clay-court tournaments at Amelia Island and Charleston into offering a wild card.

In Amelia she was beaten by someone called Milagros Sequera, a lucky loser from Venezuela, and was hammered by the rather better-known Amy Frazier at Charleston. So let's hope Navratilova's third singles of the year, against the Argentinian Gisela Dulko, will offer the great lady a pleasant gambol on the Paris clay.

Early dismissals at Roland Garros are not unfamiliar to Roger Federer either. The Swiss has not won a set there, never mind a match, for the past two years. But that was then. The amiable Alp put down his marker for greatness at Wimbledon 2003 and confirmed it by capturing the Australian Open four months ago. This, clearly, is a man for all surfaces. Any lingering thoughts that his native surface, clay, might be a weakness were swept aside by the timing and the manner of his annexation of the Hamburg title a week ago, his 11th tournament victory in 18 months. En route to the final, Federer swatted such clay notables as Gaston Gaudio, Nicolas Lapentti, Fernando Gonzalez and Carlos Moya. Then he crushed Lleyton Hewitt, who preceded him as world No 1 and Wimbledon champion, in straight sets.

But the wow factor was reserved for the final, with Guillermo Coria's 31-match sequence on clay smashed, sliced, diced and volleyed to the four corners of the Rothenbaum stadium.

Indeed, Federer acknowledged: "I am surprising myself right now. I know I have ability, but this is just incredible." So incredible the prospect is taking shape that Roger the Remarkable, already the best all-surfaces operator since the pomp of Andre Agassi, could march another mile over the next fortnight towards Rod Laver's 1969 mark of all four Slams in the one year, as long as he does not dwell on his dismal record at Roland Garros, seven wins and five defeats.

He will need to find his feet, and his form, without delay, since a third-round clash looms with Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time winner of the French. Projected semi-final opposition is Juan Carlos Ferrero, the defending champion. The fair-haired Spaniard has lost just three of his 26 matches at the French, but a combination of illness and staleness have kept him out of action since a first-round exit at Monte Carlo in early April, and Federer will be content to note that Moya, the 1998 winner and in-form Iberian, is safely tucked away in the other half of the draw, along with Coria, Agassi, Andy Roddick and, for what it is worth, Britain's two hopes, Greg Rusedski and the ninth-seeded Tim Henman.

Roddick, the second seed, has been no more successful at Roland Garros of late than Federer, having failed to navigate the opening round for the past two years. Twelve months ago, Roddick reacted by taking on board that wise old bird Brad Gilbert as his coach, with predictable benefit, and if he can steer his way past early clashes with compatriots such as Todd Martin and Robbie Ginepri, past disasters could be forgotten. A quarter-final between Roddick and Agassi, the 1999 champion, would be something to savour, as well as something unusual in a place where Americans tend not to flourish.

France's record is even bleaker at their home Slam, with nothing since Yannick Noah in 1983. Sebastien Grosjean is, as 10th seed, officially the best hope, the bad news being that he stands in the path of Federer. Of the other prospects, the imponderable, as ever, is Marat Safin, seeded 20 and not a happy bunny about the way he is performing. He could get to the final, as he did in Australia in January, or he could demolish a few rackets and be on his way in the first week. Not even Marat knows.

In the women's event, France officially had a winner four years ago in Mary Pierce, except that she was born in Canada and raised in Florida. For a true French winner, the ladies need to look back to 1967 and Françoise Durr. This year there is hope for Amélie Mauresmo, but every year there is hope for Amélie and every year she disappoints. A quarter-final last year was the best of her nine appearances.

Mauresmo, victor in successive recent events at Rome and Berlin, is seeded third and the beneficiary of a friendly draw, at least until a possible semi-final with the champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne. So "Allez Amélie"could be ringing out a few times over the next week or so in a women's field weakened by the withdrawal of Kim Clijsters, nursing a wrist injury. Henin, too, counts her chances at only 60 per cent after six weeks out of action with viral worries, while the older Williams, Venus, was last spotted on crutches departing Berlin, a victim once more of a rebellious body not really designed for the wear and tear of tennis.

However, there is always sister Serena, who has been waiting for this event and a chance of revenge over Henin, who defeated her in that acrimonious semi-final last year. Not even Navratilova would want to stand in the way of a Serena-Henin final.