At French Open, Tennis Courts and Heroes' Feet Are Both Made of Clay

It's been a bad week for ticket scalpers hovering outside the closely guarded gates of Paris's Roland Garros stadium. One by one, the top seeds of this week's French Open tennis tournament have fallen - and with them, the clamor for sidewalk ticket sales.

"Wait!" shouts one young man with tickets to sell as he lopes after a prospective buyer, "Michael Chang is still in the tournament!"

The great rivalry of this year's tournament was to have been a final-round matchup between Americans Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively. But Sampras lost in the first round; Agassi went down in a quarterfinal match against talented Russian player Yevgeny Kafelnikov. No. 3 Boris Becker also failed.

France's brightest prospect, Mary Pierce, failed to make the quarterfinals despite a frenzy of promotion from sponsor Nike and the French press. "Great artists have no nationality," proclaims an oversized Nike poster of Pierce in a Paris subway. (Pierce was born in Canada and trains in Florida.) Tell that to the editors of Tennis de France magazine, who included a "personal note" of encouragement to the No. 3-ranked player in their June issue: "Because you are magnificent when you play, because you dazzle us and give us an example. No Frenchwoman since [1970s tennis star] Francoise Durr has brought us so much promise of happiness and success. Thank you for what you do and who you are."

Despite the star's early defeat, her fan club was signing up new recruits at the Nike booth outside center court. For $50, fans receive a letter from Mary, as well as her fitness and diet tips, recipes, news of her leisure activities, discounts on Nike clothes, and preferential rates at the Florida-based Nick Bollitieri Tennis Academy.

Women players of all nationalities lamented the decision to hold the women's quarterfinals on Court A, rather than on center court. "A decision made by machos," Spanish semifinalist Conchita Martinez told the press.

Even relegated to Court A, women provided moments of brilliance on a clay surface that demands patience and finesse. No. 2-ranked Steffi Graf confirmed her comeback from injuries with a flawless routing of longtime rival Gabriela Sabatini in a 55-minute quarterfinal, 6-1, 6-0. Top-ranked Spanish player Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario beat Chanda Rubin 6-3, 6-1, but not before the young black American gave the audience some of the most boldly contested points of the tournament.

But the lopsided scores of those quarterfinals signalled a continuing problem of depth in women's tennis, where early matches are often measured in minutes and rarely fought beyond two sets. When news that favorite Agassi was about to lose his men's quarterfinal match flashed across the scoreboard during a women's match, many fans left to watch his match on television.

"The game misses Monica Seles," sighed one Parisian fan. Seles was wounded by a German fan two years ago and withdrew from tennis. "The gap between the top and the others is too great."

Even absent, her presence is felt here. "Monica Seles has made a huge difference in security," said one of the 80 guards assigned to cover this tournament. Two black-suited guards stand between audience and players during breaks, and closely follow contact between fans and players.

TOP SEED: Defending champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario is shown defeating Chanda Rubin in the quarterfinals June 6 (6-3, 6-1).

JACKIE NAEGELEN/REUTERS

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