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It’s Curtains for Kuerten in First Round

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His peers are spending their summer fishing out of backpacks and sleeping on benches in train stations. Justin Gimelstob is eking out a living on the professional tennis tour. On balance, he may have envied his college friends their carefree lives.

Until Tuesday, when the former UCLA student defeated the current French Open champion in the first round at Wimbledon. The 20-year-old Gimelstob, ranked No. 117, defeated Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6, 6-4, to complete a match that was stopped because of darkness Monday night.

Kuerten, seeded No. 11, was one of six seeded players to lose Tuesday, a gloomy but dry day at the All England Club. Fifth-seeded Michael Chang lost to Australian Todd Woodbridge, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6, in a match that took 3 hours 54 minutes and ended in twilight.

It was the second year in a row that Chang--whose game is not well suited to grass--has lost in the first round.

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British hope Greg Rusedski defeated seventh-seeded Mark Philippoussis of Australia, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (8-6), 6-3. The battle between the two biggest servers on the tour also was continued from Monday. The other seeded man to lose was Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, who was seeded No. 17 after Thomas Muster withdrew. Britain’s Chris Wilkinson defeated Bjorkman, 7-6 (7-5), 0-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.

On the women’s side, Kerry-Anne Guse of Australia defeated 13th-seeded Kimberly Po, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, and Andrea Glass of Germany defeated 15th-seeded Ruxandra Dragomir of Romania, 5-7, 6-2, 10-8.

Despite the enormity of the surroundings, Gimelstob appeared emotionally in control in his first match at Wimbledon.

The atmosphere at the cramped Court 3 was lively, and the fans were clearly wishing Kuerten would linger in the tournament. Since his victory at Roland Garros, Kuerten’s infectious buoyancy has earned him the affection of fans wherever he goes. The Brazilian remains so approachable that the repetitious congratulations he has been receiving have nearly worn him out.

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“I meet much more people because everyone stops me in the street and says, ‘Congratulations,’ ” he said. “I say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ This, I said, like one thousand times already. And everybody [says], ‘I know that everyone congratulates you, but congratulations again.’

“And still here I’ve seen some players I didn’t see from the French Open. So, today, after my match, one guy says, ‘Hey, congratulations for Paris,’ and I [had] just lost my match today. So it’s strange--it’s nice and it’s good.”

As far as tennis heartthrobs go, Kuerten is now on the list. He nearly has the young female following that Spain’s Carlos Moya enjoys. Gimelstob was asked, facetiously, if it disturbed him that he had disappointed so many fans.

“That wasn’t one of the overwhelming thoughts going through my mind,” he said. “I apologize to the ladies.”

Gimelstob has his own romantic interests. He courted actress Alicia Silverstone via fax with no net result, and has been an escort to women’s No. 1 Martina Hingis.

His only encouragement during Tuesday’s match came from the exhortations of his younger brother, Russell, a student at Cornell.

“It’s great to have him here,” Gimelstob said. “Russell and my older brother Josh, who’s not here, they’ve both been very supportive. I spoke to my older brother this morning. It’s great to have some family here.”

Gimelstob has done a good job of concentrating on tennis while following the legal problems of Josh, his former doubles partner. A student at Tulane and a member of the school’s tennis team, Josh Gimelstob is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter after hitting and killing a campus police officer who had ordered him to slow his car on Jan. 20, 1996.

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The entire family plays tennis, although Justin followed his father’s path and briefly played basketball. Barry Gimelstob is a prominent high school coach and an avid follower of his son’s career. He followed the match point by point on the Internet from his insurance office in New Jersey.

Turning pro was not an easy decision, nor has it been a smooth transition. Gimelstob may not have benefited from the many wild-card entries he received into tournaments. The “opportunities” put him into bigger tournaments than he might have been ready for and prevented him from gaining experience the way most young pros do, at challengers and satellites.

Gimelstob didn’t win anything for 3 1/2 months after he turned pro last June. He lost in the first round in all seven ATP tournaments he entered. He finally won a match at a small challenger tournament. He ended the year 3-9.

“It was an abysmal start, but it was good, because I had to evaluate what I was doing,” Gimelstob said. “Any time you’re struggling you have to think things out and regroup, and I think that’s what I did.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wimbledon Featured Matches

CENTRE COURT

* Rachel McQuillan, Australia, vs. Monica Seles (2), Sarasota, Fla.

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* Magnus Norman, Sweden, vs. Goran Ivanisevic (2), Croatia.

* Tim Henman (14), Britain, vs. Jerome Golmard, France.

COURT 1

* Wiltrud Probst, Germany, vs. Jana Novotna (3), Czech Republic

* Greg Rusedski, Britain, vs. Jonathan Stark, Seattle

* Chris Wilkinson, Britain, vs. Mark Woodforde, Australia


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