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French Open Is Lacking a Little in Personalities : Tennis: Without Seles, Agassi, McEnroe and Connors, it could be a major disappointment.

May 22, 1993|STEPHEN WILSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARIS — No Monica. No Andre. No Jimbo or Mac.

The French Open is missing them all this year, leaving the Grand Slam event short on personality, controversy and drama.

Sure, most of the top players will be here when the $8.1 million clay-court classic opens Monday at Roland Garros. The favorites will be Jim Courier, aiming for his third straight men's title, and Steffi Graf, going for her third career women's championship.

Both are worthy, respected champions. But the French Open--and tennis in general--has been hit by the loss of some marquee names, crowd-inspiring stars, and compelling rivalries.

The missing-in-action list is headed by Monica Seles, who was stabbed in the back during a match in Hamburg last month and was forced to withdraw from both the French Open and Wimbledon.

Seles has won the French the past three years and captured a total of eight Grand Slam titles, including the Australian Open in January.

"She'll definitely be missed," said Graf, who replaces Seles as the top seed. "Because of who she is and the way she plays we wanted her to be there."

The German assailant who attacked Seles told police he wanted to help Graf regain the No. 1 ranking--and that is expected to happen in Paris or at Wimbledon as long as Graf doesn't lose in the early rounds.

The knifing of Seles has prompted French Open officials to reinforce security. There will be searches of spectators entering the grounds and bodyguards will be posted near the players' chairs. But officials said the measures will be discreet.

"We're not going to turn the stadium into an armed camp," said assistant tournament director Herve Dutreil. "The tournament is, above all, a great festival of tennis."

The party will go on without Andre Agassi, who pulled out this week with tendinitis in his right wrist--an injury that could also keep him from defending his Wimbledon title next month. The Las Vegas showman, who lost in the finals in 1990 and 1991, has always been a crowd favorite in Paris.

"It's true that Agassi is the darling of the teen-agers and his victory at Wimbledon last year gave him another dimension," said tournament director Patrice Clerc, "but his absence will not undermine the tournament."

The fans will also miss old-timers John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who lost in the first round last year and have more or less retired from the game. McEnroe will be working strictly as a television commentator this time.

With 15 Grand Slam titles between them, neither McEnroe nor Connors ever won the French but they always generated excitement whenever they walked on the court.

That's not quite the case yet with Courier, who assumes a no-nonsense approach on court and an aloof posture off it. Some might call him boring or arrogant, but no one can question his fitness, intensity and mental toughness.

Courier lost only one set last year in Paris, beating Petr Korda in straight sets in a one-sided final and delighting the crowd by accepting the trophy with a speech in French. He starts as the overwhelming favorite again this year, bidding to join Bjorn Borg as the only players of the Open era to win the French three years in a row.

"It's no guarantee I'm going to do great at the French, but if I had to pick a way to get ready, this would be it," Courier said after pounding Goran Ivanisevic 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, in the Italian Open final last Sunday.

Even though he lost his world No. 1 ranking this spring to Pete Sampras, Courier is clearly the superior player on clay.

"He is dominating at the moment," Ivanisevic said. "Of course, he hurts you with his forehand, but mentally, he is doubly stronger than anybody else."

Frenchman Fabrice Santoro was awed: "He makes me scared. He hits with incredible force. Off the court he's a nice guy. On the court, he's a killer."

The killer instinct is what Sampras will need if he wants to dethrone Courier. More comfortable on fast surfaces, he looked sharp on clay in Rome until he was blasted off the court by Ivanisevic in the semifinals.

Sampras has pretty strokes, a big serve and the talent to win on any surface. But, between points, his hang-dog look and stooped posture don't exactly project an aura of invincibility. He admits that he tends to get down on himself when he falls behind.

"Courier is the type who gets tougher if he loses the first set," Sampras said. "I guess we have different personalities. Sometimes I get a little bit discouraged. It affects my tennis. I've always had a problem with that. It's something I've been working on."

No matter how hard he works, Boris Becker never seems to master clay. He has won all Grand Slam titles except the French, and this year has failed to get past the third round of any clay-court event. He was even jeered off the court after losing in the first round in Madrid.

"The fact is that I'm not one of the greatest players on clay," the three-time Wimbledon champion said. "It's been like that for nine years and it's not going to change."

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