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TENNIS / THOMAS BONK : An American in Paris May Be Shown Again

May 17, 1993|THOMAS BONK

Only nine American men have won the French Open since dust from the red-clay courts first dirtied a white tennis ball in 1925. But Americans have won the French Open three of the last four years, a success rate that amounts to virtual dirtball domination.

But if the victories by Michael Chang in 1989 and Jim Courier in 1991 and 1992 shook up the clay-court community, there was a virtual publicity blackout 55 years ago, when the first American won the French Open men's singles title.

Actually, when Don Budge won at Roland Garros in 1938, he had no idea he was making history.

"Somebody had to tell me I was the first American," Budge said. "I said, 'You mean to tell me (Bill) Tilden didn't win it at least once?' It just wasn't a big deal back then, I guess."

It's a big deal now. After 1955, when Tony Trabert won his second consecutive French Open title, no American mounted the winner's stand until Chang, 34 years later. Now an American winning in Paris is becoming, well, old chapeau .

Budge said it's possible an American will win again when the tournament begins May 24 on the courts on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. He also said it's possible an American won't win. That's the way with clay, Budge said.

"To me, there's no champion today that's head and shoulders above the field," he said. "It's not like it was when Fred Perry was playing--he could beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. I was in that same category. When I won the Grand Slam (in 1938), I only lost three sets all year. I don't think you see that happening anymore."

So where is the new champion going to come from? In no particular order, here are eight top candidates, plus who is doubtful:

Courier--His Italian Open victory Sunday was his only clay-court preparation for the French. Risky? He did the same thing before winning last year.

Stefan Edberg--He has done very well on clay so far, winning at Madrid over Sergi Bruguera and reaching the semifinals at Nice and Monte Carlo. And he has proven he can go the distance in Paris, having lost the 1989 final to Chang. The odds are against him, though, because he has won only three clay-court titles in his career.

Pete Sampras--He cut his pre-French Open clay-court preparation from four to two tournaments. Not very adept on clay, he might get caught looking ahead to Wimbledon's grass courts, on which he feels as at home as a lawn mower. Sampras and Michael Chang are playing singles for the U.S. team in next week's World Team Cup clay-court special event in Dusseldorf.

Ivan Lendl--At 33, the three-time French Open champion put together an impressive clay-court run that included a victory at Munich, a semifinal at Nice and a quarterfinal at Hamburg, where he lost to eventual champion Michael Stich. But Lendl lost in the first round of the Italian Open and has won one clay-court tournament in four years.

Stich--When he beat Andrei Chesnokov to win the German Open, Stich was so overcome with joy, he forgot to shake Chesnokov's hand. Stich hasn't forgotten how to play on clay and might be the guy to beat in Paris, if he can keep his temper under control.

Chang--Since January, Chang has slipped from No. 6 to No. 10 in the rankings and needs an impressive showing in Paris to keep from dropping further. He would have to be really lucky to beat the big guys, who have more weapons. But don't count him out.

Andrei Medvedev--Winning would be a tall order for this 6-foot-3, 18-year-old. But remember that a year ago, Medvedev got into the French Open as a qualifier, ranked No. 175. Now he is ranked No. 12.

Andre Agassi--Tendinitis in his wrist forced Agassi to pull out of the Italian Open and also dampens his prospects for the French. But if anyone can walk off the plane, pound a few tennis balls into the corners and go a long way, it's Agassi.

Boris Becker--A Becker victory is unlikely, mainly because he doesn't play well on clay. In the Italian Open, he got past the second round for the first time in four clay-court tournaments.

As for the women's field, the contenders are few if Monica Seles isn't going to play. The two players who then would have the best chance of meeting in the final are 1989 champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and 1987-88 champion Steffi Graf.

It's not exactly a lock, though. Sanchez Vicario beat Graf at Hamburg, but lost to Gabriela Sabatini at Rome, where Conchita Martinez beat Sabatini in the final.

Sabatini hasn't won a tournament in her last 16 events, the second-longest streak of her career.

Another player with potential in Paris, Jennifer Capriati, probably must be considered a longshot because of arm problems.

Tennis Notes

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