Clay-Courters Should Try to Take Lawn Way Around

Gustavo Kuerten and Alex Corretja, the French Open champion and runner-up, are passing up Wimbledon. Kuerten says he has a groin injury. Corretja says he has a leg injury.

The biggest injury both have is to their egos. What they have is too much red clay stuck to their brains. That stuff must be clogging their sense of reason.

There had been grand, bombastic talk after the French Open of a boycott of the world's grandest tennis tournament, Wimbledon, by the world's biggest whiners, the clay-court specialists. Such players as Kuerten, Corretja, Juan Carlos Ferrero and others who excel on the slow, clay surfaces of Europe, are angry at Wimbledon.

Wimbledon officials have chosen for many years to seed players based on something other than the computer rankings that rate players based on results of tournaments played on hard courts, clay courts and the few grass-court tournaments still in existence.

Wimbledon officials have had the nerve to say that maybe Pete Sampras, who is ranked No. 5 on the computer but who has won seven of the last eight Wimbledon titles, will be seeded No. 1.

And that Kuerten, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, a ranking crafted mainly on his exemplary work this spring on the slow, slow clay of Spain, Italy, Germany and France, was going to have to accept a lower seeding. Same for Corretja, Ferrero and others.

Is Wimbledon going to survive the absence of Kuerten and Corretja?

Heck, yes. This will be the third consecutive year Corretja has missed Wimbledon. It would be five in a row except technically you have to count his 1998 first-round loss to Justin Gimelstob as actually playing. In 1997 Corretja didn't play. In 1996 he lost in the second round to Jakob Hlasek. In 1995 he didn't play. In 1994 he lost in the second round to Richard Fromberg. Wimbledon has survived.

And Kuerten? Last year Kuerten lost in the third round to Alexander Popp. Popp was ranked No. 163 in the world. In 1998 Kuerten lost in the first round to Jason Stoltenberg. In 1997 Kuerten lost in the first round to that giant-killer Gimelstob. In 1999, Kuerten actually got to the quarterfinals. He lost to Andre Agassi. The young Brazilian acted as if he was interested in conquering his grass fears and seemed to have the game to do so.

But, no, Kuerten grumbled last year about how tiring it was to come from the French Open to grass, to make that long flight from Paris to London, and then to be so humiliated, so embarrassed to find that the Wimbledon seeding committee, after looking at his illustrious history at the event would not just hand him a nice, high seeding.

The most Kuerten and Corretja have been counted on to do on Wimbledon's fast, slippery, uncertain grass is to provide one of those lines on the bottom of news stories: "Among the seeded players to lose in the first round . . ."

For several years the clay-court players have groused about Wimbledon's haughtiness. After all, they say, the French Open sticks to the computer rankings. The French Open doesn't take away Sampras' seeding just because he can't play on the stuff.

This only reflects badly on the French Open.

A survey done by the All England Club showed that the top four seeded players at Wimbledon have advanced to the semifinals as they would be expected to 52% of the time. At the French Open, staying true to the seedings has happened only 16% of the time. In other words, too many men who can't play on clay have benefited from a computer ranking based on skills other than being able to slide and hit a ball.

The dirt boys apparently felt emboldened this year. Kuerten is a popular player, a big draw who includes the crowd in the emotion of a moment, who drew a big heart with his racket on the Roland Garros red clay to show his appreciation for his fans.

He should have colored that heart yellow. Or drawn a chicken. Or shown up, shut up and won some matches at Wimbledon. If one of these clay-court guys actually came and tried and won a few matches, maybe Wimbledon officials would look more kindly on the complaints.

Instead, Wimbledon actually tried to appease the whiners.

The tradition at Grand Slam events has been to seed 16 players in the field of 128. After the complaining started, Wimbledon officials announced they would seed 32 players and that it would use the computer rankings to determine those 32 players. What Wimbledon wouldn't do was promise that the 32 would be seeded one to 32 exactly as the computer has them ranked.

What this did was take away chances for hard-fought first- or second-round matches and the upsets they might produce. Before the new process, a player like Todd Martin, a strong server who does well on grass but who would not have been seeded in the top 16, could have drawn a Sampras or Agassi in the first round. Now Martin is seeded No. 23, and he can't meet one of those top players until the second week of the tournament.

And then, after Wimbledon tried to compromise, Kuerten and Corretja pulled out anyway. With "injuries." These guys didn't have the nerve to stick with the boycott idea.

As afraid of the truth as they are of grass, Kuerten and Corretja couldn't even stand up for themselves. On Thursday another clay-court specialist, Nicolas Lapentti, pulled out. Lapentti, who had been seeded No. 32 and who had favored the boycott, might have faced Sampras in the third round. Lapentti wasn't happy with that. And now he's "injured."

Ferrero, who has never played Wimbledon, was seeded eighth instead of fourth, as the computer has him ranked. An injustice, Ferrero has said. Here will be the biggest upset of the tournament--if Wimbledon's eighth-seeded man plays a match on grass and wins it.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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