Spanish Armada rolls to quarters in France

Posted: Tuesday, June 03, 2003

PARIS Meet Tommy Robredo, the latest wild card dealt by the French Open.

He celebrates midmatch points as though he's just won a title. He spins drop shots when no one else would. He's 21, the youngest man left at Roland Garros.

And now he's in the final eight of a Grand Slam tournament, joining Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya to give Spain four quarterfinalists at a major for the first time in the Open era.

Robredo upset three-time French Open winner Gustavo Kuerten 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 Monday in the fourth round, proving that his victory over top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt was no fluke. Next up: Costa, the defending champion.

''I've beaten the Ace, I've beaten the King,'' Robredo said. ''Now I need to beat the Jack, don't I? I've beaten No. 1, I've beaten someone who won here three times, and the next person in my path is Costa.

''If I beat Costa, I'll have beaten the entire deck of cards.''

Like Robredo, Guillermo Coria is 21, the son of a tennis coach, and playing in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Coria earned a matchup against childhood hero Andre Agassi by finishing off fellow Argentine Mariano Zabaleta 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in a match suspended after three sets Sunday because of darkness.

Coria, 3 1/2 months older than Robredo, was named after 1977 French Open champion Guillermo Vilas. But his favorite player growing up was Agassi.

''I used to see him play when I was a kid, with his long hair,'' Coria said. ''I used to like his attitude on court, his appearance, the way he would dress. He's different.''

Before this tournament, Coria's best showing at a major was reaching the fourth round at this year's Australian Open. He lost to Agassi, who's 12 years his senior.

The win over Zabaleta lasted a tournament-high 4 hours, 41 minutes and included 377 points.

''I'll be a little bit tired, but I don't think this will affect my tennis,'' Coria said. ''The will I have will compensate.''

Ferrero, who lost to Costa in last year's final, eliminated countryman Felix Mantilla 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. Ferrero's next opponent is No. 19 Fernando Gonzalez, who beat No. 30 Jarkko Nieminen.

Costa opened the tournament with three five-setters, but he finally had an easy day, eliminating the last Frenchman, No. 32 Arnaud Clement, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5. The French Open's last homegrown male champion was Yannick Noah in 1983.

The French Open's red clay does seem to have a way of producing surprising success stories, players who triumph here and not at other majors.

Recent examples include Andres Gomez (1990), Thomas Muster (1995) and Moya (1998).

Costa was a classic example of an out-of-nowhere champion. He didn't win any of his preceding 65 tournaments nor any of the 22 since. Kuerten himself was 20, ranked 66th, and without a previous title when he won his first French Open in 1997.

Robredo owns one title and reached just one other final both in 2001. He began that year ranked 131st, finished 30th, then plateaued. Robredo came to Paris ranked 31st and seeded 28th, with first-round exits at two of the last three majors.

Oh, but what a run he's having.

His victory over Hewitt in the third round marked the first time Robredo overcame a two-set deficit and the first time Hewitt relinquished one. Robredo was brilliant for stretches against Kuerten, striking 21 forehand winners.

''He's believing in himself,'' Kuerten said. ''He's going for shots and making shots.''

Repeatedly at key moments, Robredo would dispense with power and spin a well-disguised drop shot. He took four points in each of the last two sets with drop shots and frequently used them to take control of exchanges.

On his fifth and final match point, he hit a drop shot, Kuerten got it, and Robredo lofted a lob that slapped the baseline. Kuerten smashed his racket and tossed it aside, while Robredo dropped to his knees, then fell to his back, arms raised.

It wasn't his first such outburst. After ending the tiebreaker with a volley, Robredo rocked on his heels and punched the air.

When Kuerten tried a drop shot in the match's next-to-last game, Robredo scooped the ball down the line for a winner then hopped around, pumping his fists, and nearly wound up on the wrong side of the net.

Robredo is cooler off the court.

A Spanish journalist asked him about being so close to winning a major.

''I don't think I'm that close,'' Robredo said. ''This is Monday at least I think it's Monday. I've played so many matches. The final is Sunday. That's six days away. I don't think it's that close. So many people have been left on the side of the road. There's so many matches to play.''



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