Interesting fortnight in store

SINCE Pete Sampras won his record breaking seventh Wimbledon title and thirteenth Grand Slam title way back in July 2000, seven different men have won each of the seven Grand Slams. I don't know whether this has ever happened before in the history of the game. What is more, there is every possibility of an eighth different man winning the 2002 French Open Championship which starts on 27th May.

This clearly emphasises a couple of things. There has never been greater depth in the men's game than today. Secondly, we are also witnessing a period of transition - a changing of the guard, so to say, with the older generation of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi fading away (I am sure Agassi would take objection to this, especially after his emphatic win at the Italian Open). But there is no denying the fact that their best days are behind and they will have to make way for the younger generation.

Players such as Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin are serious contenders. Each has already won a Grand Slam title and is still improving and would be players to watch for some years to come. Hewitt at present the top player in the world and it is quite possible that he will be seeded No.1 in the tournament. What this would do would be to protect him from the other top players. Clay is not necessarily his favourite surface but he has been at it for the past two months - slipping and sliding around all the tournaments in Europe. While he has not done too well, the point here is he has been putting in the time and it is bound to pay some dividends. Whether it will be this year or in the future, one does not know. Lleyton Hewitt is a competitor of the highest order and one cannot write him off. Also, let us not forget his victory over Gustavo Kuerten last year in a Davis Cup match on clay in Brazil in straight sets.

Marat Safin is highly unpredictable, and this is at the best of times. He demolished Pete Sampras to win his maiden Grand Sam title - the 2000 US Open Championship. And to date has not added to that. He missed a golden opportunity at this year's Australian Open losing to Thomas Johansson in the final. There is no doubting Safin's talent. When on, he can be too hot for anyone. But the question mark over his temperament still lingers. This year's French Open will give him a chance to put that to rest.

Gustavo Kuerten is the two-time defending champion of this tournament. He has won three titles in Paris and has generally been acknowledged as the best clay courter in recent times. But, he has undergone a surgery recently - a surgery that has kept him away from tennis for a few months. In fact, there was some doubt whether he will recover in time even to defend his title. He has returned to the Tour a few weeks ago and is quite clearly struggling. I can't see him going all the way. But just as in the case with Lleyton Hewitt, Kuerten will be seeded high and will be hoping that the draw is kind to him. This could enable him to last till the latter part of the tournament.

Once again, the group to watch out for will be the Spanish Armadaoe. They will be led by Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alex Corretja and Carlos Moya. Each has a proven track record on clay courts. Ferrero helped Spain win her maiden Davis Cup title in 2000, won the Italian Open last year and also the Monte Carlo Open last month. This confirms his ability to win on big occasions plus his recent form. There are many in Spain who think he is the most talented of the lot and expectations are high.

Alex Corretja has been a losing finalist here twice and this tournament would give him his only chance to win a Grand Slam. He has been around for a while which means that he has the experience. This also means that time is running out. And Carlos Moya , winner here in 1998 and a former No. 1 player in the world would love to regain some of the past glory.

Once again, the slow clay courts will present him with the best chance. Apart from these three, there are several other Spaniards who could make life miserable for any of the players in the draw. So the 2002 French Open comes with a warning to the others: Spaniards can be injurious to your health!

It is strange talking about a French Open without a serious contender from Sweden. As mentioned, Thomas Johansson won this year's Australian Open and in Thomas Enquist, we have another top performer. But strange to say, both these players are not that comfortable on clay. I say strange because Sweden has given us Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander - two of the best clay courters ever.

The American challenge will be led by Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick. Agassi, of course won the Italian Open title and is in form. I have my own doubts whether he has it in him to win seven consecutive five-set matches on clay within a fortnight. But nevertheless, he will be spearheading the American challenge and is not to be taken lightly. As far as Pete Sampras is concerned, he has made an interesting choice for a coach - J ose Higueras. Higueras, a Spaniard was a top ranked clay court exponent of his time but more importantly, he coached Michael Chang and Jim Courier to three titles in Paris. And two of them were surprise victories. I just feel this choice may be too little, too late. Andy Roddick reached the semi-final in the Italian Open and is a part of the young brigade - a potential Grand Slam champion.

The Americans also have a slightly different angle to the 2002 French Open. Later in September, they face France in the semi-final of the Davis Cup tie which will be played at the same venue. So this could give them a preview of things to come. Likewise, the French led by Sebastian Grosjean will also be jockeying for position for that September tie.

As far as the women are concerned, a half a dozen of them are in with a good chance. Jennifer Capriati is the defending champion but will have her work cut out. Venus Williams has won the past two Wimbledons and US Opens and would like to prove that she is not just a fast court player. Serena Williams has also been coming on strong and has had good results on the clay courts. Martina Hingis has already won the other three Slams during the course of her career. She has not won a Slam since 1999 Australian Open and is surely due for one. One of her problems has been the power of her opponents but the clay courts should give her a chance to blunt it but, at the time of writing, it appears that she's struggling to overcome a career-threatening injury scare. And to finish the group, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin of Belgium are the reigning Fed Cup champions. Each has reached the final of a Grand Slam so far and have the ability to take that extra step.

An interesting fortnight is in store with a wide array of players - men and women having a legitimate shot at the titles.