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Scrappy, unconventional Santoro has knack for frustrating opponents

1/17/2008 - Tennis
Playing in his 16th Aussie Open, Santoro smothered a 6-foot-9 greenhorn in Round 1 -- "the magician's" latest victim in his 20-year career. Ron C Angle Productions/BEImages Sports

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Few records have been set as quietly as this one. All Fabrice Santoro had to do to claim it was walk out on Court 13, looking, as usual, more like a weekend tennis warrior than a 20-year pro.

Santoro's first-round Australian Open match against John Isner propelled him past Andre Agassi for all-time Grand Slam appearances with 62. The milestone is a tribute to the 35-year-old Frenchman's passion and his enervating ability to convert junk into treasure. One of the best returners and retrievers in the game, he's been launching his slice forehand, the tennis equivalent of a knuckleball, toward frustrated opponents since 1989.

The fact that the match was assigned to a no-frills outer court disappointed Santoro, he said. But he won't have to wait long for a makeup call. He'll meet No. 1 Roger Federer next.

Although Santoro, like most players, hasn't been able to beat Federer since 2002 and is 2-8 lifetime against him, he's capable of knocking the conductor's baton out of Federer's hands at times. The two played a memorable 7-5, 7-5, 7-6 (2) third-round match at the U.S. Open in 2005, arguably Federer's most bulletproof season.

Federer recalls that match well and won't have to look up Santoro's stats on the Internet as he did for his unfamiliar first-round opponent, Argentina's Diego Hartfield. But he knows better than to get too comfortable.

"Of course, he's a tricky player to play against," Federer said after a frighteningly dominant 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 dismissal of Hartfield. "Everybody knows that. He's got incredible experience. He's a great tactician. So you, of course, have to be very careful playing against him.

"I really think I know how he plays. I'm not going to get too surprised anymore because he is to some degree limited with his forehand slice and, you know, with his power. But he plays it so smart, so he makes you think twice what you want to do. That's the tough part playing against him."

Tennis has changed enormously in the past two decades, and more sophisticated equipment no doubt has helped compact, piston-legged Santoro -- generously listed at 5-foot-10 -- refine his funky, effective style.

"I change my racket," he said. "I have a longer racket. I change my serve. I change my style of play. I change my string.

"I mean, the only thing I kept is the crocodile," Santoro said, pointing to the iconic logo on his Lacoste shirt.

Santoro, who wore a candy-striped polo shirt last season, appeared in conservative all whites Tuesday. "I'm 35 years old, and it's hot," he said. He opened his usual bag of tricks against Isner, smothering the 6-foot-9 rookie's fire rather than fighting it.

"He broke me six times," Isner said wonderingly. "I can't remember the last time that happened.

"The court's a bit slow and he was able to scrap a lot of returns back. Then sometimes he'd lunge and hit the ball 40 feet in the air and it would land inside the baseline. He's got that junky little slice. It's not the best matchup for me. … Guess I'll be the answer to a trivia question."

His lament sounded similar to those from many who have been tripped up by the man Pete Sampras nicknamed "the magician." James Blake, who got the first five-set match win of his career against Santoro in New York last year, lost to him last week in the first round at Sydney -- where he was a two-time defending champion.

Blake said Santoro's achievement is all the more surprising because of the mileage he logs in every match, fetching balls other players would watch go by.

"I have no idea what I'm at, but I know I'm never going to be at 62 [Slams]," Blake said after winning his own first-rounder against Chile's Nicolas Massu. "It's impressive, especially the way he plays.

"Andre started so young, had such incredible hand-eye coordination, and could make matches short and could kind of minimize the amount of movement he did on the court with just his ball-striking ability and his power. But for Fabrice, he puts a lot of wear and tear on his body, to play every match. Playing singles and doubles, I think he usually plays mixed, too. It shows how much he loves the game."

Andy Roddick agreed. "I think he's been able to do it just 'cause he plays such an awkward game, it kind of has withstood a lot of different patterns in the game," he said. "You got to want to stay out there. You know, to be out there that long, to get up and be motivated every day, it's an accomplishment in itself."

Santoro finished last season as the oldest player in the top 50. He had his best showing at a Slam here two years ago when he reached the quarterfinals, but said he has fulfilled all his dreams except for playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Landing in Federer's quarter again certainly would help that cause, and Santoro said he relishes those matches like no others.

"I'm ready, 2,000 percent, to put up a fight against him," Santoro said. "If I give my best, there will be a battle perhaps. I give him different problems to solve."

Indeed. Federer will have to brace for the change of pace, the over-the-shoulder lob, the ball that comes back when he thought he put it away, and the crowd that will enjoy watching him get tortured. Despite all that, he wasn't hesitant to give Santoro his due.

"To see him still grinding it out and playing so well at his age just shows you, if you want, you can play for a very long time," Federer said. "People like Fabrice, Agassi, are inspirations for the youngsters. That's why it's quite disappointing when I see ladies retiring at 23, 24. They think they've seen it all."

You haven't seen it all until you've seen Santoro and his sleight of hand, still crazy after all these years.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.