World no. 1 & 2 sing Santoro’s praises

PARIS: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer paid glowing tributes to French veteran Fabrice Santoro as the flamboyant home favourite prepared to embark on his 20th and last French Open adventure here on Tuesday.

Santoro, 36, has announced that he will retire at the end of the year and will be making a record-equalling 20th Roland Garros appearance when he takes on Belgian Christophe Rochus in the first round.

World number one Nadal led the acclaim for Tahiti-born Santoro, nicknamed 'The Magician' by American great Pete Sampras, describing him as "a legend on the tour".

"He plays with his very own personal style, two hands. He was a very charismatic player on the tour, and he's a model for all of us," said the Spaniard.

"Twenty years is a long career and that's fantastic. We all wish we can play for 20 years. So he had a beautiful career, and he really deserves a tribute."

Among the records held by Santoro is that of the longest match ever played in the Open era, an epic 6hr 33min encounter with countryman Arnaud Clement in the first round of the 2004 French Open that saw Santoro eventually prevail 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 3-6, 16-14.

He also holds the record for the most Grand Slam appearances and will be playing in his 67th major this week.

Santoro enjoys a 7-2 record against Russian former world number one Marat Safin, who once famously joked: "Being told I would play Santoro was being told I was to die".

His best singles result at a Grand Slam was a quarter-final appearance at the 2006 Australian Open, while he twice tasted doubles glory there in 2003 and 2004.

However, Federer feels his greatest legacy will be the joy he brought to the court.

"It's become a great accomplishment for me to play against him a great many times," said the Swiss.

"He's very talented, the way he touches the ball, hits the ball. He's one of the greatest tacticians in terms of his play.

"I've always enjoyed playing against him, and watching his matches as well. We respect each other."

Santoro won the 2005 French Open mixed doubles title with Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova to give him a silverware souvenir of his 20-year love affair with the tournament, but it is the admiration of his fans and his peers that speaks most tellingly of his achievements.