Costa comes back again at French Open

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2003

PARIS Albert Costa was as cool as his rackets in the courtside fridge after double-faulting to hand Tommy Robredo a two-set lead in the French Open quarterfinals.

Hey, the defending champion had the kid right where he wanted him.

Just 1 1/2 weeks ago, Costa's 10-year record didn't include a single comeback from such a deficit. Now he does it routinely.

With a key midmatch strategy shift, Costa overcame fellow Spaniard Robredo 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 Wednesday, making him the second player to win three matches at a Grand Slam tournament after trailing 2-0 in sets. He's also the first player in at least 35 years to win four five-setters during a French Open.

''Every day I surprise myself,'' Costa said. ''I promise it's not a strategy. When I am two sets down, I still think I can win the match. I don't know why.''

His semifinal opponent Friday will be a friend, countryman and the man he beat in the 2002 final: Juan Carlos Ferrero. The third-seeded Ferrero wasted five match points before eliminating No. 19 Fernando Gonzalez 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. The other semifinal is Guillermo Coria vs. Martin Verkerk.

Helped by Gonzalez's 15 double-faults, Ferrero joined Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier as the only men to reach the French Open semifinals four consecutive years.

The women's semifinals are Thursday, with Serena Williams facing Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Kim Clijsters playing Nadia Petrova. Williams is bidding for a fifth straight major title.

Of the final four men, only Costa owns a major championship and last year's French Open was his lone title in the past 88 tournaments. He came to Paris 14-10 this season, having won more than two matches at just one event.

Costa ''found his confidence here,'' Ferrero said. ''But physically, I'm not sure he'll be that fresh, because nobody can be after playing that many sets.''

The tally: 23 sets and 227 games totaling 18 hours, 32 minutes.

Costa rallied from two sets down against Sergio Roitman in the first round and Nicolas Lapentti in the third, and also went five sets against Radek Stepanek. The only other player with this many such comebacks at a major was Nicolas Escude at the 1998 Australian Open.

''It's worse when you've never won because you are very anxious. Sometimes you can do something strange on the court and lose your mind a little bit,'' he said. ''Now when I'm on the court, I think: 'Well, I still won once, so don't feel pressure, don't get nervous, don't get anxious.'''

Robredo, 21, eliminated two Grand Slam champions en route to his first major quarterfinal: Lleyton Hewitt and Gustavo Kuerten. He appeared poised to make it three Wednesday, lacing groundstroke winners for two sets.

And then Costa altered the match's complexion.

He stopped swatting strokes from 6 feet behind the baseline and began pushing forward. Picture a right-handed boxer shifting to southpaw during a bout.

''He saw that I was changing my tactics. He began to doubt,'' said Costa, seeded ninth. ''Then I just managed to catch up with him, and that was it.''

After going to net 16 times in the first two sets, he made 35 trips the rest of the way, winning the point on 25. Robredo, meanwhile, made 62 unforced errors over the final three sets, twice as many as he did building a lead.

''Anything can happen, no?'' Robredo said. ''What he did today it's very difficult.''

Nothing Robredo tried slowed Costa's comeback, including delay tactics: He changed shirts, got a leg massage from the trainer, and went back to his chair to switch rackets right after a changeover.

Perhaps Robredo hoped to throw off Costa or maybe he wanted extra rest. When the players switched sides after the first game of the fifth set they aren't supposed to sit Robredo plopped himself atop the ice box.

Costa had to ask Robredo to move so he could grab one of the eight rackets inside. He was protecting them from the 79-degree heat, which can loosen strings.

Robredo also had more trouble with the swirling wind that kicked up dust on the court and blew one spectator's wide-brimmed straw hat out of the stands.

As his edge slipped away, Robredo didn't hide the frustration. He threw his racket at the net, to the ground, and once sent it 10 feet end-over-end in the air, like a baton twirler, except he didn't catch it. He expended energy during an argument over a line call early in the fourth set.

''There are different ways of losing,'' Robredo said. ''I lost in the best possible manner in five sets and playing very good tennis.''

Costa has a way of making opponents feel that way.



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