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Countryman Is Out, but Fans Have Rosset

TIMES STAFF WRITER

French tennis fans--whenever they can be persuaded to abandon their leisurely lunches and drag themselves out to Roland Garros Stadium for matches at the French Open--can be as discerning and demanding as any in the world. But first they must be provoked.

It doesn’t take much. Wednesday’s two men’s quarterfinals set fans here on edge. In one match, for the first time in four years, they had a French player to cheer. In the other, they were energized by a Swiss player from Geneva, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Close enough.

Usually the crowds here save their energy to cheer against players, but when Cedric Pioline took the court against Michael Stich of Germany, and Marc Rosset came on against Bernd Karbacher, also of Germany, fans had two players to cheer for. They were also able to fall back on standard French Open etiquette: When in doubt, pull against the Germans.

Their cheering and jeering produced mixed results. Stich defeated Pioline, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. The fans’ goodwill aided Rosset, who defeated Karbacher, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-0.

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The Stich-Pioline match brought out the crowd’s meanness. Stich, ranked No. 16, was whistled at for questioning line calls and cheered when he double-faulted. Fans here have been known to heckle players for wearing tennis clothes they consider tasteless.

Pioline had the crowd but also the burden of history--not since Henri Leconte in 1992 has a French player reached the quarterfinals at the French Open.

Pioline, ranked No. 19, had three break points against Stich in the first game of the third set and the crowd began to climb all over the German. His double fault--one of only two in the match--brought him to 0-40 and the crowd to its feet. Stich was visibly angered but shook it off and held.

“It bothered me,” Stich said of the fans’ reaction. “I fortunately held this [game]. That was also a little bit of a turning point.”

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Stich stepped up his serving and took Pioline out of his game, which offers elegant ground strokes and a daring, crowd-pleasing style.

Pioline affirmed that the crowd was on his side, but shrugged. “If they didn’t support me,” he said, “I didn’t see who they would be able to support.”

Rosset, the 1992 Olympic champion and ranked No. 15, started slowly, but his game began to build on emotion and the strength of his serve. The 6-foot-7 player had 12 aces in the match, which lasted 3 1/2 hours in the afternoon heat.

Rosset lost the first two sets quickly but said he was inspired by Pete Sampras’ comeback from two sets to love against Jim Courier in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

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“It was not the first time I was two sets to love down,” he said. “You still have a chance. I tried to think a little bit about Pete and what he did yesterday. I think the public was really bored during the first two sets. After I tried to go up to the net and do beautiful volleys, it was a bit better.”

Rosset wisely read the crowd’s preference for beautiful strokes over a successful but not-so-pretty style.

The fans also appreciated Rosset’s gesture after the match of giving his racket to French film star Jean Paul Belmondo.

“I was down two sets and he was behind me all the time,” Rosset said. “It was important to me to win the match and to give him the racket. Jean Paul is class.”

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