Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Costa almost stumbles at first hurdle

CLOSE CALL The man who won the French Open last year almost failed to make it past the first round this year, coming back from two sets down to win

REUTERS , PARIS

Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten returns the ball to Switzerland's Marc Rosset during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros stadium in Paris on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Defending champion Albert Costa narrowly escaped a humiliating French Open fate on Tuesday, while Lleyton Hewitt and his Belgian sweetheart Kim Clijsters rattled off messages of intent at the claycourt grand slam.

Not once since the tournament first welcomed foreigners in 1925 had a champion -- man or woman -- fallen at the first hurdle the following year. Under clear Parisian skies, Costa came mightily close to becoming the first.

But when it mattered, Argentine Sergio Roitman's nerve failed him and he allowed Costa off the hook to squeeze out a face-saving 6-7 2-6 7-5 6-2 6-2 win.

Having trailed by two sets and 4-2 it was an escape of some proportions and one which the ninth-seeded Spaniard was lucky to pull off after three hours and 38 minutes.

"It is completely different from last year. Last year, I was playing very well. Here, I'm not playing my best tennis at all," Costa said afterwards, still clearly relieved at surviving the ordeal.

"I'm not thinking about winning the tournament or anything. I'm just happy to have a chance to play a second match," he said.

American sixth seed Andy Roddick was made to suffer for his lukewarm performance, however, ousted by Armenian muscleman Sargis Sargsian 6-7 6-1 6-2 6-4.

It was the American's second successive first round loss in Paris and a big disappointment since he had won his sixth title in St. Poelten on clay last week.

Former three-times champion Monica Seles also suffered ignominy. Seeded 12th this year, Seles was steamrollered by Russia's Nadia Petrova 6-4 6-0. It was her worst-ever defeat at Roland Garros. She had never before failed to reach the quarter-finals in 10 previous visits.

Women's third seed Venus Williams managed to advance despite a mediocre show, however, beating fellow American Samantha Reeves 6-2 6-4.

But there was never a hint of disappointment for Clijsters as she walloped Amy Frazier and, although boyfriend Hewitt had looked a little out of touch against Brian Vahaly, the winner of that match was never really an issue either.

Britain's Tim Henman put his recent poor form and injury worries behind him to thrash Belarussian Vladimir Voltchkov 6-2 6-3 6-1.

Former women's champion Jennifer Capriati romped into the second round, trouncing South African Joannette Kruger 6-2 6-1.

Sixth seed Lindsay Davenport, of the US joined her, the newly-wed beating Indonesia's Wynne Prakusya 6-2 while 10th seed Jelena Dokic, playing under the Yugoslav flag, beat Germany's Angelika Roesch 6-4 6-4.

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