If only Tiger Woods could play tennis.
With the French Open starting Monday, tennis could use a captivating superstar like Woods to shake out of its doldrums.
No single player has been good enough, healthy enough or hungry enough to dominate this season. From the Australian Open, to the hardcourts of America and Asia, to the red clay of Europe, it’s been a succession of different names winning the titles.
“In tennis now, you don’t have any favorites,” fourth-ranked Goran Ivanisevic said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s clay or grass or hardcourt. Anybody can beat anybody.”
With many of the big names either out injured, hobbling or far from peak form, this French Open shapes up as the most wide-open and unpredictable Grand Slam event in years.
Take the men:
Top-ranked Pete Sampras, making another bid for the only Grand Slam title he hasn’t won, is winless on clay this season and suffered what he described as a “significant” thigh-muscle strain this week. Even when healthy, clay is his least-favorite surface.
Boris Becker and Andre Agassi have pulled out, citing injuries. So have Americans Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington.
Defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was out for three months after breaking a finger hitting a punching bag, has played poorly since returning to action six weeks ago. He says it would take a “miracle” to retain his title.
Last year’s runner-up, Michael Stich, is ailing and getting ready to retire later this year. He withdrew Thursday, then re-entered Friday.
Former champion Thomas Muster, the “king of clay” in recent years, is anything but this season. He has lost more matches on clay (six) than he did in all of the past two years (when he was 111-5).
On the women’s side, the pattern is just as confusing:
Steffi Graf, returning after a three-month layoff with a knee injury, is coming off the worst defeat of her career, a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing by Amanda Coetzer in Berlin.
Martina Hingis, the 16-year-old Swiss sensation who has replaced Graf as No. 1, hasn’t played a competitive match since injuring her knee in a fall from a horse last month.
Monica Seles is not the player she used to be.
Spanish stalwarts Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez are having poor seasons.
Jennifer Capriati has pulled out with an injury.
With no single favorite for the men’s title, there’s a good chance the champion will speak Spanish.
In a clay court season where there have been 10 different winners in 11 tournaments, the most consistent player has been Spain’s Alex Corretja. He has compiled a 22-4 record, reached four finals, won the Italian Open last week and moved to No. 8 in the world.
While his game and personality lack flair, Corretja makes up for it in hard work and a steady baseline game built around a top-spin forehand.
Best remembered for a marathon match against Sampras at last year’s U.S. Open, when he let a match point slip away against a sick and exhausted Sampras, Correjta since then has come into his own.
“That match gave me more confidence,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I can play so unbelievable against Sampras, why can’t I do it more often?”’ Corretja is one of five Spaniards in the top 14. Carlos Moya (10), Felix Mantilla (11), Albert Costa (13) and Alberto Berasategui (14) all could be contenders in Paris. So could No. 19 Sergi Bruguera, a two-time French Open champion.
Another Spanish-speaker to watch for is No. 7 Marcelo Rios of Chile, easily identifiable by his ponytail and black socks and shoes. The little left-hander, who beat Corretja for the Monte Carlo Open title and lost to him in the Rome final, has more talent and variety in his game than the other baseliners - but turns many people off with his dour and surly demeanor.
Last year, Sampras went to Paris with virtually no clay court preparation and still mourning the death of his coach, Tim Gullikson. He won draining five-setters against Bruguera, Martin and Jim Courier before wilting against Kafelnikov in the semifinals.
Sampras started this year by winning the Australian Open and going 17-0. But he has since slumped to four straight defeats, his worst skid since 1989.
On clay, a lethargic Sampras lost his first matches in Monte Carlo and Rome, then suffered a thigh injury in Duesseldorf. He will face an immediate test in his first-round match against France’s Fabrice Santoro.
“It doesn’t really worry me,” Sampras said of his troubled preparations for the French. “I made it to the semifinals last year without hardly playing on clay. I’m not going to go in there and think I can’t win there. I think I can.”
Chang, the 1989 champion who is seeded No. 2, is always considered a threat, although his clay court game has been uneven this year. Courier, a two-time champion, has slumped to No. 22 but is showing signs of a revival.
Among the women, Graf - who has won 21 Grand Slam titles, including five at the French - looks vulnerable after the longest injury break of her career.
“She is still a very good player, but on the other hand there is nothing she has improved over the years,” rival Jana Novotna said. “She is still trying to win with the same game. Right now the generations are changing, and if you don’t add to your game, you have no chance.”
That new generation is led by Hingis. Unbeaten in 32 matches this year, she has won six tournaments - including the Australian Open - and won more than $1.2 million in prize money.
But the prospects of a Graf-Hingis showdown in the final depend on whether the teenager has recovered fully from her knee injury.
“I want to at least reach the semifinals,” Hingis said. “As long as I can survive the first two or three matches, then I’ll be dangerous.”
The women’s field also has two dangerous 15-year-olds in Anna Kournikova of Russia and Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic, who recently became the first player to win a title in her first professional tournament.
And 16-year-old Venus Williams, considered the next great American player, is playing her first Grand Slam tournament and first event outside the United States.
But the favorite could be Mary Pierce, the Canadian-born French woman with the best results on clay this year.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Elusive prize Winning the French Open would make American Pete Sampras the first player since Rod Laver to win all four Grand Slam tournaments.