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Norman Keeps Emotions Grounded, Defeats Safin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The annoying helicopter was hovering outside Roland Garros, and then, inexplicably, moved over Court Central in the second set of Wednesday’s quarterfinal between Marat Safin of Russia and Magnus Norman of Sweden.

Norman looked up as the noise grew louder, thought about the situation and kept playing.

“I’m trying not to waste too much energy on things that don’t bother the tennis. Marat got a little bit crazy, but I saw it as an opportunity,” Norman said. “ ‘Let’s not say anything about the helicopter. Let him do it.’ And he did it a couple of points after.”

Said Safin: “He [the pilot] got me very [upset]. Sorry, but when he was going down, going up, even more noise. I hope it was not a television helicopter; otherwise, the guy who rented the helicopter, he’s completely an idiot. Sorry, but we’re playing tennis. The crowd, they helped me make him leave.”

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In a sense, the incident was classic Norman. He sized up the problem and found a way to take advantage.

“I see those kinds of things as an opportunity for myself instead of a problem,” he said.

Well, guess who won the match?

Norman’s coolness prevailed over Safin’s passion in a compelling 3-hour 2-minute encounter. The third-seeded Norman won, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, as the 12th-seeded Safin committed 65 unforced errors.

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Norman will play unseeded Franco Squillari of Argentina in Friday’s semifinals. Squillari defeated unseeded Albert Costa of Spain, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, in the other quarterfinal. This will be Norman’s second Grand Slam semifinal. He lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in straight sets at the Australian Open.

“I’ve never been in a Grand Slam final,” Norman said. “That’s motivation enough. As I said, I’m just an average guy who has been working [hard] just to be here. I’m not going to let it slip through on Friday, no chance.”

He was exhausted and caked in clay when he came off the court. Norman had clay all over his legs and shirt when he went sprawling on the court, failing to convert a match point in the final game.

“Oh, my God, I don’t know if I’m able to speak,” Norman said. “It’s a great match. One of the best I’ve played. You have to believe in yourself.”

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Safin may be hilarious--"I had not a contract [as a child], so I couldn’t break so many rackets"--but Norman has a sharp wit.

“He is a great guy to watch play tennis because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said of Safin. “He can serve an ace and the next time the racket is in two pieces. The tour needs a lot of those players, as well, not boring like me, who doesn’t show any emotion.”

His equanimity was tested by one final question in the Swedish portion of the postmatch news conference. Martina Hingis dropped by his morning practice with Costa, and Norman interrupted the workout for several minutes to talk to her. Hingis then showed up late in his match against Safin and Norman was asked about her sudden appearance.

He took a sip of water, waited about five seconds and thought about his answer.

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“It’s my personal life but, yes, we’ve been good friends for a long time,” he said.

This revelation suddenly made Norman much more interesting to the assembled scribes.

“This will be big news in Sweden tomorrow,” one Swedish journalist said.

He wasn’t talking about Norman making the semifinals, either.

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Martina Navratilova’s winning streak ended at two when she and doubles partner Mariaan de Swardt of South Africa lost to the sixth-seeded French team of Alexandra Fusai and Nathalie Tauziat, 2-6, 6-2, 7-5, in the quarterfinals.

“I feel like I’m playing better than I did in ’95, ’96, when I played mixed at Wimbledon because I put in more time,” said Navratilova, who will next play at Eastbourne, England, and Wimbledon.

“I’m surprised I was able to take it to a better level than that. I’m still kind of annoyed I have not played as well in a match as I have in practice. That’s just nerves. Every match is getting better.”

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In today’s semifinals, top-seeded Hingis faces the last French hope, sixth-seeded Mary Pierce. Hingis leads the series, 10-5, winning their last seven matches, all in straight sets. Pierce’s last victory against Hingis was at San Diego in 1998 when she fought off three match points and won in the semifinals, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.

Pierce and Hingis have each lost one set in five matches at the French Open.

The other match is an all-Spanish semifinal: fifth-seeded Conchita Martinez against eighth-seeded Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, a three-time French Open champion. Sanchez-Vicario is 13-3 against Martinez, winning their last seven meetings. Two of the three victories by Martinez came on clay, the most recent at the 1995 Italian Open.

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Reigning Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport has accepted a wild-card spot in the grass-court event at Eastbourne later this month. Davenport, of Laguna Beach, who has been suffering from an injured lower back, lost in the first round at Paris to Dominique Van Roost.

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French Open at a Glance

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* Attendance: 16,070.

* Results: Men’s singles: Unseeded Franco Squillari beat Albert Costa, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, and No. 3 Magnus Norman defeated No. 12 Marat Safin, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Women’s doubles: Martina Navratilova and Mariaan de Swardt were eliminated by Alexandra Fusai and Nathalie Tauziat, 2-6, 6-2, 7-5.

* Stat of the Day: 18--number of years since an Argentine played a Grand Slam men’s semifinal. The last Argentine to do so was Guillermo Vilas at the U.S. Open in 1982.

* Quote of the Day: “I’m sorry. I broke three rackets but at least it helped me win one set."--Safin, on his angry outbursts during his match against Norman.

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TODAY’S WOMEN’S SEMIFINALS

* Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (8), Spain, vs. Conchita Martinez (5), Spain

* Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, vs. Mary Pierce (6), France


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