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TENNIS / U.S. OPEN : Court 7: Kuhlman Takes Lonely Way Out

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Court 7 at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament is nowhere, and that’s where Caroline Kuhlman and Kristine Radford labored for nearly three hours here Monday.

Mostly, Court 7 is surrounded by walkways and noise and vendors and concession-stand smoke and smells. It has a few rows of bleachers along one side of it, enough to hold, perhaps, 100 people if everybody squeezes.

Monday, nobody squeezed. It was as if nobody, outside of their immediate families, had ever heard of either player.

Still, there was a time when many in tennis had heard of Kuhlman, and expected great things from her. She won the girls’ 18 national championship in 1983. And a little later, at USC, she was the top female college player in the country. One season, she went undefeated for the Trojans until she hurt her knee.

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After that, all you heard about Caroline Kuhlman was one knee surgery after another, and the sensational career that could have been.

Radford is still an unknown quantity. She is a serve-and-volley player from Australia who, at 23, is four years younger than Kuhlman.

At stake in this Court 7 confrontation, by the public’s standards, was very little. At stake, to Kuhlman and Radford, was everything.

Each player had earned $8,000 for making the main draw. For the one winning and advancing to the round of 64, the payoff would be at least $13,300, or $5,300 more.

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So there they were, Kuhlman, ranked No. 82 in the world, against Radford, ranked No. 124, for $5,300. On these hallowed grounds, that’s shoeshine money for Pete Sampras.

The motivation, then, had to be pride and survival.

Radford had never made the main draw here, and her history of Grand Slam events included only four previous appearances since 1988, and just one advancement past the first round, in the 1989 Wimbledon. Her big moment was her three-set victory over Martina Navratilova this spring in a grass-court tournament in England.

Kuhlman has been at this Grand Slam tournament stuff since 1983 and has made eight previous appearances. Twice she had made it to the third round, both times at this tournament. But this year, she had gone out in the first round of both the French and Wimbledon and had won only four matches in six tournaments.

Pride and survival.

The first set was an ordinary 6-3 victory for Kuhlman. And she was leading the second, 5-2 and 40-15, with Radford serving. Two match points for $5,300.

But on the first match point, Kuhlman uncharacteristically rushed the net and Radford passed her. On the second, she netted her backhand return of serve. Then Radford served a net cord shot that Kuhlman returned weakly, since everybody in the place had heard the ball clip the net. But there was no call, Radford put the weak return away, and it all started to disintegrate for Kuhlman.

She served for the match at 5-3 and, at deuce, lost her contact lens. Once she got it back in, she played the last two points badly, double-faulting on break point.

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Soon, they were in a tiebreaker for the second set. Kuhlman, fighting every step of the way, rallied to get it back to 5-5, but then the younger, stronger Radford hit a big serve for a winner and forced Kuhlman to miss a tired passing shot on set point.

Finally, it came down to the ninth game of the third set.

That final game took just under 15 minutes. In it, Radford had four more match points and Kuhlman had five break-point opportunities to get back on serve. Now, people were stopping to watch. This was truly drama on Court 7.

It ended with a feeble backhand into the net by Kuhlman. She had fought to the end. Now, all the fight was gone and a 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 nightmare was over for a player who once had the promise of the next Chris Evert.

“I just decided to stay aggressive,” Radford said. “She kept passing me, and if she had won it that way, more credit to her. I just didn’t think she could keep doing that, and in the end, she didn’t.”

Afterward, Kuhlman sat for a few minutes, her head hidden in her towel. When she got up, she quickly and disappeared, all by herself, into the pushing, impersonal throng that moves like a constant wave around this place.

A reporter caught up to her, offered condolences and muttered something about a good effort. Kuhlman, almost as if she were talking to a wall, said: “I just didn’t put her away. I just didn’t do it when I could have.”

Pride and survival.

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For Caroline Kuhlman, one is now badly bruised and the other, at least for the moment in this terribly competitive way of life, is in deep doubt.


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