LONDON: Top-and-tailing the French Open draw, Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi know they will face a mammoth task next week as a legion of Latin baseliners look to bury the favourites in Roland Garros clay.
Former champions and dogged battlers from Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Chile pepper the draw as the second Grand Slam of the year slides into action.
Hewitt may be sitting atop the world rankings but he is not high on confidence on the slow surface while Agassi must pray his 33-year-old legs can motor him around the famous Parisian clay as swiftly as in previous years.
The tournament is a showpiece for France but it is the Latins who are most at home and there will be no margin for error for Agassi or Hewitt as the baseliners snap at their heels.
Certainly Agassi knows it will not be easy but he has an edge the younger players are missing – experience.
“I’m at a place in my career where I have the luxury of using my experience. Most people who have my experience aren’t playing any more,” he says.
“My body is still holding up, my mind is still eager and my heart still wants it. So now I can use my experience.”
Hewitt is equally hungry but realises it may be lack of experience which costs him.
“Maybe I have to work a bit harder on clay,” he freely admits. “It’s a challenge and I’ve always liked challenges. Whether I will ever win the French (Open) and master playing on clay, who knows? But I’ll give it a shot.”
Juan Carlos Ferrero lurks immediately beneath the top two. Runner-up last year and a semi-finalist in 2001 and 2000, the Spaniard is desperate to go one better this time round.
Victories in Monte Carlo and Valencia in recent months are testament to his form.
Seeded fourth lies Carlos Moya, no stranger to glory at the Stade Roland Garros.
In 1998 he lifted the French crown and went on to take number one spot in the rankings.
“Paris is the biggest goal for me,” he warned all comers earlier this week.
Moya’s vanquished opponent in five years ago was Alex Corretja, another Spaniard who will also pose a threat in the French capital, seeded 16th this time.
Reigning champion Albert Costa sits menacingly in the ninth seeded position. One of the fittest men in the sport he will be looking to replicate last year’s heroics.
The power of the Spaniards is beyond question but it is the form of the Argentines which has grasped the imagination this month.
The nation made history last week when four Argentines reached the semi-finals of the Hamburg Masters – marking the first time any four countrymen had ever advanced to the final four at a Masters Series event.
The historical feat was accomplished by David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria, Agustin Calleri and Gaston Gaudio.
Coria went on to clinch the title but all four are sure to be a threat in Paris.
“The Argentine success doesn’t really surprise me,” Coria said. “We are a very good group and we play at a very high level. There has been a lot of bad news from Argentina and I think that us sportsmen, we can give our people something to think about which is positive and forget about the negative things.” – Reuters