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Event Is Missing Major Parts : French Open: Absence of Seles and Agassi takes away some of the drama at Roland Garros.

May 24, 1993|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — On courts the color of smoked salmon, the French Open is being forced to go on a superstar diet.

No Monica. No Agassi.

Neither Monica Seles nor Andre Agassi will be around when the world's premier clay-court tournament takes off today on its annual two-week run at Roland Garros, the fortress-like stadium on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne.

Three-time defending champion Seles misses her chance at winning four in a row, which no one has managed to do since the legendary Suzanne Lenglen in 1920-1923. Seles is still recuperating from being stabbed in the back by a fan during a match in Hamburg, Germany, 25 days ago.

Agassi, a losing finalist in 1990 and 1991, withdrew last week because of tendinitis in his wrist.

Even without two of the sport's more interesting personalities, the French Open continues to offer a series of interesting subplots, most notably the scrambling for the No. 1 rankings.

As for the men, top-ranked Pete Sampras is safe, probably until at least Wimbledon, mostly because Sampras' quarterfinal finish at last year's French Open isn't among his top 14 results counted toward his ranking. No. 2 Jim Courier is the defending champion and needs to repeat in order not to lose any of the 639 computer points he earned for his victory a year ago.

Sampras holds a 284-point lead over Courier for No. 1.

Courier, who held the No. 1 ranking for 55 weeks until Sampras replaced him April 12, isn't exactly arriving at Roland Garros caked in red clay. Courier played only one clay-court tournament before the French Open, winning the Italian Open two weeks ago.

Courier dominated Goran Ivanisevic in straight sets in the final in Rome. While Courier was impressive, Ivanisevic said it probably would be wrong to put too much emphasis on what happened in that match.

"I was staying 10 meters back and playing like (Gabriela) Sabatini," Ivanisevic said. "This isn't women's tennis. He didn't have to play. He didn't do anything extra. I was late. I missed my chances. I served bad. I was terrible."

Nevertheless, with Agassi ailing, Sampras much more adept on faster surfaces and Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker fading, there is a chance that the French Open could develop into nothing more than the Jim Courier Show.

Said Ivanisevic: "He is dominating at the moment. He is mentally stronger than anyone else."

The best chances to avert such a Courier landslide might come from a group that includes Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Michael Chang and Andrei Medvedev.

Without Seles, the possibilities in the women's singles field are as wide as the Champs Elysee. Only five active ranked players have won a Grand Slam singles title: Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Sabatini. With Seles out of the French Open and Navratilova not entered, only two players in the field have ever won the French--Graf and Sanchez Vicario.

Graf warmed up for Roland Garros with a victory over Sabatini in the German Open on clay in Berlin, a three-set decision on Sabatini's 23rd birthday.

Said Graf: "Maybe it wasn't the right birthday gift."

The big three who are probably best suited to take advantage of Seles' absence are Sanchez Vicario, Graf and Conchita Martinez.

Many consider 1989 champion Sanchez Vicario to be the one to beat, including her: "I would bet on me."

Doubtless there are many others who would agree, although Graf may give Sanchez Vicario a run for the money. Graf is 33-4 (14-1 on clay) and has reached six finals so far, winning three of them.

But Sanchez Vicario had a streak of six consecutive finals and is 32-3 in her last seven tournaments.

For further incentive, there is the matter of Seles' No. 1 ranking, which is hanging precariously. Last week, the Women's Tennis Assn. announced that it would no longer make any adjustments in the ranking because of Seles' injury, which means either Sanchez Vicario or Graf could take over No. 1 by the end of the French.

"I would have to say that I have been the most consistent player on the tour this year," Sanchez Vicario said. "Maybe I deserve to be No. 1 right now."

It might not take long to find out.

Tennis Notes

Andre Agassi's ranking will drop from No. 8 to about No. 12 as a result of missing the French Open, which would mean that he would still be seeded for his defense of his Wimbledon title--assuming Agassi's right wrist improves enough for him to play. Phil Agassi said Sunday that his brother is tentatively planning to play an exhibition on grass in Holland to get ready for Wimbledon. . . . France's hopes for a title dimmed when Guy Forget dropped out because of a knee injury. There are 19 French in the men's singles draw, the same as the United States and more than any country.

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