As the qualifying rounds for this year's French Open tennis tournament are now in full gear, memories of last year's dramatic Grand Slam remain fresh. The 1999 French Open was one of the most exciting tennis events in recent history, as Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf each triumphed, proving that stars in the twilight of their careers can still be factors in today's game. A burgeoning romance has since developed between these defending champions, and the two are scheduled to be married later this summer.
While Andre returns to Paris attempting to defend his throne, Steffi will be seen mainly as a spectator beside Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach. Since winning last year's French, Agassi has solidified his position as the favourite at each Grand Slam tournament he enters. Still, he will have his hands full at this grueling two-week event, as a number of younger stars promise to challenge Agassi for his crown. Heading the list of challengers is Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten. This former French Open champion recently won in Hamburg and as rolandgarros.org notes, he "has the strokes, physical and mental fortitude to grind out five-setters."
Magnus Norman, who currently sits atop the ATP Champions race, must also be seen as a legitimate threat. After winning the Master Series - Rome title last week, the 23-year old Swede told rolandgarros.org "I know going into the French that I can win the title." Norman recorded his first real Grand Slam success earlier this year at the Australian Open, where he reached the semi-finals.
A sentimental long-shot in Paris is American Pete Sampras. Even though he has already established his mark as perhaps the greatest men's player in history, a French Open title still eludes Sampras. The slow red clay surface neutralizes Sampras' powerful and aggressive serve-and-volley game, and the American has failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals in Paris. Thus far in 2000, Sampras has been plagued by multiple injuries and his game appeared feckless in recent losses to Tommy Haas and Arnaud Di Pasquale. Sampras faces a formidable challenge in the opening round. Aussie Mark Philippoussis has the game to out-gun even Sampras, and appears relatively comfortable on the slow red clay.
During an interview with Albawaba.com, Christophe Proust, Editor, Media Relations at the French Tennis Federation pointed out that there are so many players in the men's draw with a realistic chance of winning the championship. He listed Marat Safin, Alex Corretja, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Cedric Pioline as legitimate contenders, and Juan Ignacio Chela, Nicolas Massu, Andreas Vinciguerra and Andrei Pavel and "dark horses" capable of scoring upsets and making a deep run. Proust also made special mention of Morocco's three stars, Karim Alami, Younes El Aynaoui and Hicham Arazi. Alami and El Aynaoui have both had their most successful clay court seasons ever. Proust added that although Arazi, the most talented of the three, is going through a mediocre phase, he could still do good things, having previously reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros twice.
Even though Steffi Graf will not be defending her title, scores of young women will be vying for the prestigious trophy. Heading the list of favourites is world number one Martina Hingis. In last year's final against Graf, Hingis was serving for the championship, up a set and 5-4 in the second. A disputed line call caused Hingis' game to unravel, and Graf subsequently snatched the title in dramatic fashion. One of the most vivid memories of the 1999 French was Hingis sobbing next to her mother during the post-match awards ceremony. Eurosport notes that the French Open is the only Grand Slam the Swiss teenager has yet to win.
Lindsay Davenport, currently ranked right behind Hingis, is not so comfortable and will have a tough timing reaching the finals. Several French ladies also have a legitimate shot of advancing deep into the second week of the tournament, including Mary Pierce, Amelie Mauresmo and Sandrine Testud. Proust notes that Mauresmo is currently "fresh and on form." Although she was out for two months due to a back injury, she reached the finals at two recent events, Bol and Rome, and is now close to playing her best tennis.
Regardless of which man and woman emerge as 2000 champion, the upcoming two weeks are sure to be full of excitement. The entire stadium has been renovated and Centre Court now seats 50 percent more spectators. Stay tuned for a dramatic fortnight in Paris.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)