No Kuerten Call at French Open

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here's how nervous, how unsettled, 18-year-old Marat Safin was at the prospect of serving for the match against defending French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, holding tennis history on his racket.

He hit two aces in the first three points of the final game to reach 40-0. Safin tried for an ace on match point and settled for a baseline rally that ended when Kuerten knocked a backhand wide.

Game, set and match.

The one-Slam wonder, Kuerten, was ruthlessly dispatched by the newest Slam wonder, Safin, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, on Friday in the second round of the French Open. It is the first time in the open era that a defending champion has lost to a qualifier in a Grand Slam event.

More open era history: It is the first time that seven of the top eight seeded players at a Grand Slam event failed to reach the final 32. Only third-seeded Marcelo Rios of Chile survived, advancing when Wayne Ferreira of South Africa rolled over on his right ankle, tumbled to the clay and was taken to the hospital for X-rays. Rios, who lost to Ferreira earlier this month at Hamburg, was leading, 6-1, 3-3, in the third-round match when the injury occurred.

Additionally, none of the reigning Grand Slam champions are still around. Petr Korda, who won the Australian Open, lost in the first round, and Pete Sampras, who won Wimbledon, Kuerten and Patrick Rafter of Australia, who won the U.S. Open, lost in the second.

Fourth-seeded Rafter also exited Friday, losing his temper and then losing to countryman Jason Stoltenberg, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.

The American fortunes in Paris continued to decline. Jan-Michael Gambill finally finished his second-round match--which started Thursday--and lost, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-0), to Daniel Vacek of the Czech Republic. Gambill, who was playing his first French Open, had a colorful way of describing Vacek's floating slice shots, saying: "It's a push. It's slimy. That's why it's hard to play."

His loss means 11th-seeded Michael Chang is the lone American male remaining. Chang defeated qualifier John van Lottum of the Netherlands, 7-5, 6-2, 3-0 (retired). Van Lottum defaulted because of a strained buttock muscle, which he initially injured in his first-round match.

"I hope Chang wins. I'd like to see the U.S. guys do well," Gambill said.

Make that singular.

"We're in doubles, aren't we?" Chang said, smiling.

The injury-riddled Chang is feeling sound now, but not fit enough to be playing in the Davis Cup, at least in his mind. Essentially, don't plan on seeing him playing against Belgium in July at Indianapolis.

The American women are faring better. Still in the tournament are Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams and Chanda Rubin. There was little drama in the matches involving the top-seeded women Friday. Advancing in straight sets were No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 3 Jana Novotna, No. 6 Seles, No. 8 Venus Williams, No. 10 Iva Majoli and No. 13 Anna Kournikova.

So far, the tournament has belonged to an unlikely protagonist, Safin. Safin is Russian but has lived in Valencia, Spain, for four years and speaks English with a Spanish accent.

He also showed the ability to keep his feet on the ground, or at least on the clay, after an eye-catching victory over Andre Agassi in the first round.

"I feel bad for Guga [Kuerten] because he's defending champion and he lost a lot of points here," said Safin, who will play Vacek in the third round. "But this is tennis life. What can we do? Just bad luck for him. Because everybody wants to beat him, a lot of points, money, everything."

Kuerten never won a major professional tournament before the French Open, and he hasn't won an event since then. Certainly, his results leading up to Roland Garros were not encouraging for a repeat performance.

"It's always tough when you have to come back and try to defend the title," Kuerten said. "For sure, I was a little bit nervous the first match, maybe. . . . I'm not feeling bad. I think I did my best. I fight hard. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to beat him."

During the match, Safin made a sporting gesture when he overruled a line call, giving the point to Kuerten, not a frequent occurrence on the tour.

"You have to be a gentleman," he said. "If you see the ball is good, it's good. I can't--if I see the ball is good--say, 'Out.' I don't care if I lose the next point. You have to be friendly on the court."

Frankly, he is relieved to be off the Challenger circuit, the minor leagues of men's tennis.

"I think it's more tough to play Challengers than ATP tour," he said. "You don't believe me, but it's like this."

Why?

"I don't tell you," Safin said. "Sorry, it's other story."

Today's Featured Matches

MEN

Cedric Pioline vs. Richard Krajicek (10), Francisco Clavet vs. Michael Chang (11), Alex Corretja (14) vs. Hernan Gumy, Alberto Berasategui (16) vs. Dominik Hrbaty, Hicham Arazi vs. Mariano Zabaleta, Thomas Enqvist vs. Filip Dewulf and Marat Safin vs. Daniel Vacek.

WOMEN

Elena Likhovtseva vs. Lindsay Davenport (2), Alexandra Fusai vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (4), Conchita Martinez (7) vs. Virginia Ruano-Pascual, Mariana Diaz-Oliva vs. Iva Majoli (10), Sandrine Testud (14) vs. Gala Leon Garcia, Dominique Van Roost (15) vs. Serena Williams and Patty Schnyder vs. Silvia Farina.

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