Santoro to wow SA fans

2009-01-28 00:00

THE holder of the grand slam singles record number of titles, Pete Sampras, calls the man who turned professional 20 years ago “The Magician”.

He is a Frenchman of Italian descent, born in Tahiti, resident in Geneva and ranked 52nd in the world tennis rankings, so it is not altogether surprising that such a cosmopolitan background has produced one of the most sought-after players in world tennis.

Known for using a two-handed grip for virtually every possible shot, Fabrice Santoro is one of the favourites for the SA Tennis Open that begins on Monday at Montecasino in Johannesburg and culminates in the final on February 8.

Santoro’s cheerful demeanour on court and considerable repertoire of trick shots, willingness to push the envelope and mix and match his tactical manoeuvres ensure he is a darling of the crowd.

Clowning around on court at times, maybe, but Santoro has also earned the respect of his peers.

“Told I would play [him] was being told I was to die,” is the opinion of former world number one Marat Safin of Russia, who lost seven times in nine matches against Santoro.

Apart from Safin, the 36-year-old Santoro has beaten 17 world number ones, including Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and André Agassi, and is the oldest player in the world top 100. He also broke Agassi’s record of 61 grand slam appearances at the Australian Open last year and is now involved in one of tennis’s majors for the 66th time.

Apart from this distinguished record, Santoro also won the longest singles match in the Open era, defeating fellow Frenchman Arnaud Clement 6-4 6-3 6-7 (5/7) 3-6 16-14 in a marathon six hours and 33 minutes in the first round of the 2004 French Open.

Aside from his ability as a singles player, Santoro is a notable doubles exponent, winning the Australian Open twice and the 2005 French Open mixed doubles with top women’s singles player Daniela Hantuchova. The other side of the sweet taste of grand slam victory has seen Santoro a losing finalist three times in grand slam doubles events, including the 2006 Wimbledon final.

This year’s SA Open also has an exciting line-up of quality doubles combinations, so the competition is likely to be as hot as that for the singles title, with the favourite there being world number six Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Santoro’s French compatriot.

And Santoro is certainly one to watch, win or lose.

• Jon Cook will be reporting on the SA Open from Montecasino.

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