Federer and Ferrero must take their chances

AS the first bottles of Bordeaux as red as the shale on the courts are corkscrewed open, and players slide like dusty ballet dancers across Parisian clay, one question will follow two men as the French Open commences.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

AS the first bottles of Bordeaux as red as the shale on the courts are corkscrewed open, and players slide like dusty ballet dancers across Parisian clay, one question will follow two men as the French Open commences.

"When are Roger Federer (facing page) and Juan Carlos Ferrero going to convert their advertised skills into a Grand Slam win, when will they be ready to shrug off that tired label of `would-be champion' and leap into the embrace of greatness?" asks the author. _ Pics. AFP & AP-

How long must we wait for promise to translate into deeds?

In short, when are Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero going to convert their advertised skills into a Grand Slam win, when will they be ready to shrug off that tired label of "would-be champion" and leap into the embrace of greatness?

The Swiss is 21, the Spaniard 23, and we have recognised their vigour and applauded their imagination, lauded the sweet science of their games and marvelled at their audacious strokeplay. But only through a Grand Slam title will we be convinced of the breadth of their ambition and the sharpness of their desire. For these men, the time to deliver this ultimate proof has scarcely gone, but it has certainly come.

We have been waiting, now impatiently, for this generation to assert itself, for young men of cleaner lungs and heftier ambitions to send their older peers into retirement homes of their choice. It has not happened and it is a shame. Four of the past five Slams have been won by 33-year-old Andre Agassi, 31-year-old Pete Sampras, 28-year-old Thomas Johansson and 27-year-old Albert Costa. At least two of them are so old in the tooth that they wake up to hear an aching tale from every joint, while the third and fourth are reasonable fellows whose hearts are more compelling than their skills.

Only Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt, he of the arguable manners and unarguable courage, has shown the necessary feistiness, but it is a flag he cannot fly alone. One man does not make a generation.

Agassi aside, Ferrero and Federer are the form players of this summer, their backhands oiled, forehands polished and legs muscled and ready. Since the Australian Open, Ferrero has won in Monte Carlo and Valencia, and reached the semis of Barcelona and Rome (all clay). Federer has won in Marseille (hard), Dubai (hard) and Munich (clay) and been to the final of Rome (clay). Talent we know they possess, nerve we are unsure of.

Ferrero (presently carrying an arm injury) carries the sobriquet of "mosquito", a buzzing, busy fellow with a forehand sharp enough to draw blood and a player so clay court-oriented he must have been sliding in his crib. Yet, a loss to Costa in last year's French final left behind a memory of brittle temperament. Federer is more an all-court warrior, a man with a telling arsenal but whose choice of weapons is not always productive and whose heart for a fight is yet to be truly unveiled. For a man with an impressive proboscis, he still hasn't proved he has the nose for the big occasion.

Both players will not come better advantaged this year, for the opposition is either floundering or unready. Gustavo Kurten went under the knife to fix his hip but woke up without his edge of greatness. Yevgeny Kafelnikov is in form, yes, but could lose to his arthrithic great aunt if he is not in the mood, and Rainer Schuettler, who is No. 4 on the ATP Champions Race, poses a limited threat.

It gets better. Agassi continues to defy every law of tennis possibility (his win-loss record is 23-2 this year), yet his full-throttle strokeplay is dulled by the surface, his aggression often stifled by the endlessly-athletic clay courters. Agassi may have learnt patience from parenting, but clay frustrates his desire to quickly end rallies. Moreover, it asks the most telling physical questions of any surface. He won in Houston (clay), exited the first round of Rome, and whether his abbreviated clay court schedule will result in a freshness of spirit or an unreadiness of mind is to be seen.

Hewitt, who, by some accounts, has his ruthless eye on a Wimbledon-French double last achieved by His Borgian Highness in 1980, won in Scottsdale and Arizona (both hard court), but has not played on clay till Hamburg last week. It may not be the handicap it appears, for few players can arrive from time-off and re-find their fluency so swiftly.

Caught in a puerile, never-ending battle with the ATP after he was fined for allegedly refusing an interview, Hewitt's relative no-show on the tour (he has not played since mid-March) has been variously attributed to either his breathing troubles or his self-defeating snub of ATP tournaments.

For a player whose game is built on a Glenn McGrath-like metronomic efficiency, Hewitt, seemingly ironically, has been least effective on clay; the nuances of sliding footwork, the subtleties of clay craft, and the big shot to end points abruptly are a combination that eludes him. Yet, you sense, not for long. He has the necessary strength of limb and persistence of mind, and while his time is coming, it may not be this year.

Even if you throw into the mix the style of Carlos Moya, the monotony of Felix Mantilla, the anarchic beauty of Marat Safin, the electric abandon of Andy Roddick, and a host of other Europeans who resemble ball machines, the field is not still fearsome. Federer and Ferrero must take their opportunity, seize their chance.

A watching, waiting world is bemused by the lethargy of men's tennis, drowning more in the nostalgia of better times gone by. It is time for these men to turn all conversations away from Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Becker, Edberg, Lendl and Sampras, Agassi, Courier and boldly become the centre of attention.

The women have no trouble in that regard, for Williams-Williams-Capriati-Henin-Davenport-Clijsters is possibly the best women's sports show of any sport. When champions like Hingis abruptly opt out, sports beat their chest in dismay; but such is the collection of talent, the exhilarating collision of egos, that hardly a murmur was heard.

Serena's muscular ferociousness remains hard to counter, and the possibility of a fifth straight Slam will only fuel her majestic ambition. Venus, whose forehand looks more wobbly than Chris Harris' deliveries once did, may not be ready to stop her, but it is the Belgians who are muscling in most decisively on to Serena's turf.

For a woman charming in the press room, Clijsters unveils decidedly unfriendly strokes on court; borne on powerful legs, surely a genetic gift from her footballer father, she is not short on all-round ability. Yet, champions are often defined by an absence of pity, exemplified by Serena's cold-blooded destruction of her sister at the Australian Open final. It is this instinct that Clijsters was accused of lacking when she collapsed against Serena in the Australian semi-finals and she will be keen to erase that memory.

But it is the wispier, slighter Henin-Hardenne who has been carving the most chaos with her racket, winning the Family Circle Cup, Dubai and Berlin, and most importantly breaking Serena's winning streak. She is an attractive presence, her game a stylish mix of arcs and flourishes, and like Clijsters she is in smelling distance of her first Slam. There is nothing quite like a young player grasping an opportunity, rattling established reputations and writing history. It is an opportunity Federer and Ferrero, Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, must dare to take.