PARIS With the familiar red clay underfoot, and chants of ''Gu-ga!'' ringing in his ears, Gustavo Kuerten felt right at home.
Something about the French Open inspires the three-time champion: His preparation doesn't matter, nor does his health, nor does the opponent, apparently.
Showing no signs of a bum hip or recent time off, Kuerten upset No. 1-ranked Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 Saturday to reach the round of 16 at Roland Garros for the sixth straight year.
''I came here in bad shape, playing bad,'' said the man known as Guga, who entered the French Open ranked 30th and just 2-4 since February. ''But every time I go on the court, it seems something special happens with the love and passion I have for the tournament that brings the best out in me.''
It tends to bring out the worst in the top-seeded Federer, who lost to journeymen in the first round in 2002 and 2003. After the latter disappointment, he went 19-1 at Grand Slam tournaments, winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
Boasting a tour-high four titles and a 34-3 record this season, the Swiss star never worked his way into the match against Kuerten, though, failing to secure a break point after the second game.
''I don't really care what I did. Now it's over. The tournament is over,'' Federer said when asked whether he erred in strategy. ''What can I do now?''
Book a flight, for one thing. His early exit follows those by defending champions Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne and marks the first time in French Open history that both top-seeded players lost before the fourth round.
The ''ooh-waah'' Kuerten seemed to sing as he exhaled while swinging through each groundstroke sounded similar to the fans' chants of his nickname echoing through the main stadium, where green-gold-and-blue Brazilian flags dotted the stands.
The spectators were in an angrier mood six hours later, when full-throated boos were directed at Marat Safin as he walked off the same court at dusk, toting a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Italian qualifier Potito Starace, who's ranked 202nd.
The match provided the most theater on a day when Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati moved into the women's fourth round.
Safin penalized a point for pulling down his shorts during a two-day, five-set, second-round victory over Felix Mantilla drew the crowd's ire by repeatedly stopping play to have blisters on his left hand treated by a trainer.
The most notable interruption came while Starace was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set and right after a spectacular forehand passing shot erased Starace's second match point (Safin saved one against Mantilla). The jeers and whistles were so loud during that delay, Safin climbed up the chair umpire's stand to hear him.
The Russian showed his hands to Starace, who later said Safin probably was hurting but ''surely, he did it to make me more nervous.''
Safin had eight blisters on his hands; he's right-handed but uses a two-fisted backhand.
''It's really sad for me the people couldn't understand,'' said the 2000 U.S. Open champion, who had 20 aces and finally won on his sixth match point, when a weary Starace dumped a forehand into the net.
Had the match not ended in that game, it would have been suspended until Sunday. Instead, Safin can heal for a day before facing No. 8 David Nalbandian. Starace, meanwhile, will return to the obscurity of minor league tournaments knowing, he said, ''I can compete with the best.''
Martin Verkerk learned that lesson last year, when he reached the final in his very first appearance. His run ended a week earlier this time, in a 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 loss to two-time major champion Lleyton Hewitt.
Like Federer, Hewitt has found greater success on hard and grass courts than on the surface some refer to as ''dirt.'' For Kuerten, in contrast, it's a blank canvas that demands artistry, in the form of down-the-line backhands that bedeviled Federer or the heart the lanky Brazilian drew in the clay as a valentine to the fans in 2001.
Kuerten's never been past the quarterfinals at the other three Slams.
''It's been a love story since the beginning,'' said Kuerten, who was ranked 66th and didn't own a title from any tournament when he won the 1997 French Open ''coming from nowhere,'' as he put it Saturday.
He triumphed in Paris again in 2000, when he finished the year ranked No. 1, and in 2001, but right hip surgery the next February derailed his career.
Troubled by the hip this spring, he considered skipping his favorite event altogether, then twice was two points from defeat against a qualifier in the first round. But Kuerten, who meets No. 23 Feliciano Lopez for a quarterfinal berth, was as brilliant as the 78-degree weather against Federer.
''He didn't give me too much of a chance. He wasn't missing much,'' Federer said. ''He was stronger than I thought today.''
© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us