Dirt Cowboys

by Adam Small | 5/29/01 5:00am

It's time for the sea of red, the sliding, the dirt and the slow-ass moonballers. Once again it is time for the French Open in tennis. This annual tournament of who can last longer running down balls on a surface that should have long ago been abolished, at least from an American's point of view, will once again showcase European excellence and American ineptitude on the greatest equalizer in tennis, clay courts.

I know that clay courts aren't really as great an evil as I make them sound. Heck, I played on them for seven years in my early tennis career, and I know how much fun they can be when you are playing an opponent with more power and you can frustrate him by getting to every single ball. Plus, you can showcase your heart much more easily, because diving on clay hurts a lot less than diving on cement (or hard courts as they like to be known).

So know its time to eschew the facts of this year's men's draw, which is the only draw I pay attention to religiously, because watching the women's draw frequently gets me stuck in the conundrum of Anna Kournikova (beauty without skill) and Mary Pierce (skill with ugliness) and I try to allow my brain to avoid such problems when I'm relaxing and watching sports.

The favorites always have to be Gustavo Kuerten, the No.1 seed, No. 1 in the world and defending French Open Champion and Andre Agassi, the grand old man of tennis who gets better with age (just like those wondrous French wines and cheeses), who is seeded third. Beyond these two, the field muddles with the likes of No. 2 Marat Safin, who's never one a Grand Slam, No. 4 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who worships clay but has been injured of late, No. 6 Lleyton Hewitt who gets better and better with every day but who has yet to prove that he win the big ones and of course the master of all clay court feebleness, seeded fifth, the one, the only, Pete Sampras.

For those of you who like huge serves, the big bombers are around as always, with Patrick Rafter seeded eighth, Tim Henman at No. 11, Thomas Enqvist at No. 14 and a host of others including everyone's favorite useless player with a 140 MPH serve, Marc Goellner. The clay courters abound as well, with 17 Spaniards and 15 Frenchmen, almost all of whom are specialists here including two-time winner Sergei Bruguera, who, though not seeded, poses a problem in the fourth round for Kuerten.

With all of these names floating around, and the first day of the tournament over with No. 15 Jan-Michael Gambill eliminated in four sets by Kristian Pless of Denmark, it's worth looking at a few potential hot matches before giving my enlightened opinion on the eventual winner of this years Roland Garros Dirtfest.

The first match that stands out is the impending changing of the guard match in the second round between Michael Chang and Andy Roddick. Chang, one of America's winningest players, has slipped far in the last four or five years, but underwent a resurgence late last year with a semifinal appearance at Shanghai followed by a quarterfinal stop at the Stuttgart Indoor in late October. Chang cruised easily through his first round match against Germany's Alexander Popp, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. Roddick is one of America's young guns, along with Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri who are not in the French Open, and won his first two pro titles earlier this year. Chang, a former French Open winner (everyone should watch the five-set marathon he had in the 1989 final with Stefan Edberg to see how good tennis can be), would love to get through and give Hewitt a challenge in the third round, but Roddick has been very hot and may be too much for Chang's aging legs.

Another interesting story is Harel Levy, a young Israeli who is having some solid success for the first time in his young singles career. The 6'1" Levy has been touted one of the most solid all-around youngsters on tour and is just trying to fine tune his game, which has brought him to the No. 48 ranking in the world, to make a push for a Grand Slam victory. Levy breezed through veteran Byron Black in the first round, proving that he can beat a solid clay courter. Next up for Levy is the always creative Karim Alami, who outlasted young Davide Sanguinetti in a five-set match. If Levy can continue his solid groundstroke game, he will slide past Alami into a match with Kuerten that will give him all he can handle as well as a chance to ink himself into the level of Roddick and Gambill as the next group of superstars.

With all of these sidebars, it is tough to sort through the mess and pick a winner. For my vote, I'll take Alex Corretja, the No. 13 seed. Corretja has been a favorite of mine since he lost the vomit match to Sampras at the U.S. Open. Corretja's draw isn't that difficult and should sweep him into the fourth round against Safin and a semifinal match with Agassi. I have great faith in the Spaniard's combination of touch, creativity and resilience and it's about time that he got a major title to show for all his efforts. As for the other half of the draw, I look for Kuerten to play into the final after a matchup against an upstart, quite possibly the winner of the Roddick " Chang war. As for Sampras, he'll lose to Andrei Medvedev in the third round. Just wait and see.