FRENCH OPEN / MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH : A Sure Thing: Title Will Remain in Spain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One is Catalan, the other Basque. But today, Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui will play for all of Spain when they meet for the French Open men's championship.

And the cynics say that's all they will be playing for as the finale of the world's premier clay-court tournament has been banished to Iberia.

No doubt Bruguera, of Barcelona, and Berasategui, of Arrigoriaga, will be doing hard time today at Roland Garros Stadium, where they have swarmed all comers with unshakable ground strokes. It could be a three-hour blinking contest, with the No. 6 Bruguera trying to become the ninth man to defend successfully a French Open title.

Berasategui, ranked 23rd, will be trying to make history, as well. He wants to become the fourth man to win the French Open without losing a set--the last being Bjorn Borg in 1978 and 1980--and the second unseeded champion. Mats Wilander did it in 1982.

Either way, one will become the fifth Spanish champion of the French Open, and although that might not pique the interest of many, it is nonetheless an intriguing prospect. Even King Juan Carlos of Spain is expected to be in Paris for the grand event.

Since Berasategui left the Palmer Academy tennis school in Florida, he moved to Barcelona to train with Spain's top players, including Bruguera. The two have become good friends, often practicing together, eating out and going to discos. Now they will be battling for the one Grand Slam tournament title that means more to the Spanish than the three others combined.

"Sergi doesn't want to play Alberto," said Imanol Bellegui, Berasategui's youth coach. "(Bruguera) has all the pressure."

The way Berasategui, 20, clobbers those deadly wayward shots, few like facing him on clay. He hits forehands with a backhand grip in one of tennis' most unusual swings.

"It is absolutely (a) world-class forehand," said Magnus Larsson, who lost to Berasategui in a 72-minute semifinal.

Bruguera, 23, knows it as well as anyone. He sees it during practice, and has defeated his young rival in two of their three matches. Both victories have come on clay this year--at Barcelona and Monte Carlo.

Bruguera has lost only one set--against Jim Courier in his semifinal victory Friday--en route to the final. What has distinguished him and Berasategui from other competitors in Paris is sure-footed quickness on the unforgiving clay.

"I don't know if I am the fastest player in the world, but I am very quick and I have to take advantage of that," the 5-foot-8 Berasategui said.

It will be a footrace against Bruguera, who does not make many errors as he sends arcing shots deep to his opponents' baseline. And Bruguera seems to have improved with each match, particularly in defeating No. 4 Andrei Medvedev in the quarterfinals and No. 7 Courier in the semifinals.

Although not surprised by what has happened, Luis Bruguera, Sergi's father and coach, thinks his son can improve.

"He can do better than this," the elder Bruguera said.

Now that's a scary thought.

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