Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Kuerten, Hewitt fold after noble fight

FRENCH OPEN David Nalbandian and Gaston Gaudio advanced to the semifinals of the Grand Slam tournament in Paris

AP , PARIS

Davild Nalbandian of Argentina reacts after defeating Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in their quarterfinal match during the French Open at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Wednesday. Nalbandian won 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6.

PHOTO: AP

Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten couldn't block out the pain during his quarterfinal match against David Nalbandian, losing to the Argentine 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6) after gutting it out for more than three hours.

Every shot, sprint and lunge was enough to provoke pain Wednesday, making the Brazilian's task that much tougher against a determined Nalbandian.

"That's the toughest part -- to maintain your mind ready and fresh and thinking about the game all the time," Kuerten said. "Sometimes, it's really tough to forget all the pain that you have."

It didn't help that Nalbandian was like a metronome, swatting stroke after stroke from 2m behind the baseline, then scrambling to get into position for the next.

Gaston Gaudio did the same against Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, like Kuerten a former No. 1 player and a major winner. Stretching points and rarely making a miscue, the unseeded Gaudio eliminated No. 12 Hewitt 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Nalbandian and Gaudio play similar styles, neither has won a Slam, and neither has won any title since 2002. Oh, and they have this in common, too: Both are from Argentina, as is No. 3 Guillermo Coria, giving the nation three semifinalists at a major for the first time.

"It's great for the country, whoever wins," Nalbandian said. "We have a 75 percent chance."

The interloper? Serve-and-volley specialist Tim Henman, the first Englishman in the French Open semifinals in 41 years. On Friday, he'll face Coria, the only man not to lose a set. Nalbandian meets Gaudio.

Never before had more than two Argentines reached a Slam's quarterfinals. Another player from Argentina, Paola Suarez, is in Thursday's women's semifinals, facing Elena Dementieva, while Jennifer Capriati plays Anastasia Myskina.

"An unbelievable week," said Gaudio, 13-5 at Roland Garros and 7-15 at other majors. ``Maybe an Argentinian guy is going to take the final, and it's going to be like a dream.''

Actually, it's not so unusual for one country to dominate the French Open: Spain had three semifinalists in 1998 and 2002. Nor is it rare that whoever hoists the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday will be celebrating his first major championship; he'll be the tournament's 11th first-time Slam champ in the last 16 years.

Nalbandian came the closest of the bunch, losing to Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final. He also reached the semifinals at last year's US Open, then won the first two sets and held a match point before losing to Andy Roddick.

There were moments Wednesday when it looked as if another lead might slide away. Four times, Kuerten was a point from forcing a fifth set. Four times, Nalbandian rose to the occasion, including a spectacular cross-court forehand winner when Kuerten was serving at 5-4.

With wind kicking dust off the court into the players' eyes, Nalbandian broke there, and again when Kuerten served for the set at 6-5. In the tiebreaker, Kuerten led 5-2, but Nalbandian produced a forehand on the line, a service winner, and a backhand to the corner.

"It escaped from my hands," said Kuerten, whose first tour title came at the 1997 French Open, and he added victories here in 2000-2001. "But maybe 80 or 90 percent of this was because of his effort, and not my fault."

As always in Paris, the man known as Guga received tremendous crowd support. One group broke the monotony of changeovers by singing, "Ole, ole, ole, o-la, Gu-ga, Gu-ga!"

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