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Serena arrives, Rafter retires

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2000

NEW YORK -- Midnight madness struck again at the U.S. Open.

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, two-time champion Patrick Rafter succumbed in five sets to the inspired and uncanny brilliance of Galo Blanco, a 5-foot-8 Spaniard who had lost in the first round of every other Grand Slam event this year.

With several thousand wildly cheering fans still in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blanco rallied back from a minibreak in the final tiebreaker, winning five of the last six points, to beat Rafter 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (5). The 3-hour, 2-minute match ended at 12:07 a.m.

''We both fought very hard out there,'' Rafter said. ''I'm happy with the way I fought, and I tried to win. Some days it just doesn't go your way. Tonight was one of those. He put in a good performance there. Just too good on the night.''

Rafter, the runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon last month, came into the U.S. Open unseeded because he had been out most of the year while recovering from shoulder surgery.

But the 27-year-old Australian, the U.S. Open champion in 1997 and 1998, had no problems with his shoulder lately and was considered the most dangerous floater in the men's draw, a player who was nearly as much of a favorite to win the title as Sampras or Andre Agassi.

Blanco was the exact opposite, a 23-year-old ranked No. 114 who had lost in the first round of 13 of his 16 previous Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. His best performance in a major came at the 1997 French Open, where he reached the quarterfinals before losing to Rafter in straight sets in their only other meeting.

''That was my most important match in my life,'' Blanco said. ''So I beat him here in this tournament, and he beat me there in my tournament. That's life.''

Rafter drilled 24 aces past him and kept charging the net as always, but Blanco stood his ground on the baseline and pummeled Rafter with passing shots. Blanco's particular splendor on this cool and breezy night was his ability to limit his unforced errors, committing only two in the first set and 38 overall, while the more aggressive Rafter made 52.

Most surprisingly, perhaps, Blanco managed to ace Rafter 17 times, seven of those in the final set.

Rafter said his shoulder was fine and he had no excuses.

''When the match gets tight, I generally am pretty solid,'' Rafter said. ''Tonight, just far too many errors. I just wasn't hitting the ball well. My chip-charging wasn't working, my groundstrokes trying to get into play weren't really working. I just missed a lot of the fundamentals, a lot of high volleys. My game was off.

''It's going to be hard to sleep tonight. It is disappointing.''

It was the second big upset on the second day of the tournament. Early in the afternoon, lanky Australian qualifier Wayne Arthurs' 26 aces helped bring him a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) victory over French Open champion and No. 2 seed Gustavo Kuerten.

There would be no such upset in the women's draw.

Never shy, Serena Williams arrived in defense of her U.S. Open title resplendent in tie-dyed lilac and black, and flashing a pert smile that bespoke the confidence of a champion.

If the fans thought the Kuerten upset would be a prelude to another right away, Williams quickly set out to disabuse them of that notion and any thought that her recent heel injury might hinder her.

First she made her color-coordinated fashion statement, slowly peeling off her lilac jacket to reveal a sheer, flowing dress that perfectly matched her lilac sneakers.

''It shows how good I look, how in shape I am,'' Williams said with a laugh.

Then she made a tennis statement, ripping a return winner on the first point as she proceeded to beat 19-year-old Slovenian Tina Pisnik 6-3, 6-2.

In beginning her quest to reach the final along with her older sister Venus, 18-year-old Serena did not display her finest tennis, even if it was enough to overwhelm a player of Pisnik's modest ability.

''I was not the usual Serena,'' she said. ''It showed a little bit because it should have been a little quicker. Y'know, it was 59 minutes. I'm used to 40s and 30s now. ... I didn't play well today.

''Actually, I was expecting to feel really special. I didn't. The guy that was announcing, he said, 'Our defending U.S. Open champ,' and I couldn't help but smile. Other than that, I didn't really feel it.''

There were times when Williams soared spectacularly on overheads and lunging volleys, and times when she walloped serves at 111 mph to rack up four aces and six service winners. But there were also times when she found herself out of position, when her lilac shoes got tangled up, when Pisnik made her look quite ordinary.

That happened once in the first set, when Pisnik broke her at love in the fourth game, and once again in the second set, when Pisnik broke her at 15-40 with a backhand at the net.

But those lapses were perhaps to be expected after Williams missed a week to allow an inflamed small bone in her left heel to calm down. The injury flared up nine days ago during her final against Martina Hingis in Montreal, and Williams cautiously retired from that match in the third set.

There was never any danger that Pisnik would pull off an upset like Arthurs.

Occasionally, Arthurs, a left-hander, gets into a serving groove and seems unbeatable. It happened at Wimbledon last year when he held serve for 111 consecutive games through three rounds of qualifying and three matches of the tournament before falling in four sets to eventual finalist Agassi.

This time, after a solitary break by each player in the first two sets, Arthurs and Kuerten held serve the rest of the way and let the tiebreakers decide matters. In those, Arthurs proved dominant and he ended the affair with a 134 mph ace up the middle.

Told that Kuerten was one of the favorites to win this tournament, Arthurs replied, ''Not anymore.''

Kuerten became only the second No. 2 seed to lose in the first round of the U.S. Open since 1956, when the present system of seedings started. The only other time it happened was in 1994, when second-seeded Goran Ivanisevic was ousted in his opener. Ivanisevic lost another first-round match on Tuesday.

Kuerten was the second seeded player to tumble from the tournament on the second day. Earlier, No. 16 Julie Halard-Decugis fell to Miriam Oremans 6-3, 6-4.

Lindsay Davenport, the 1998 women's champion, romped past Gala Leon Garcia of Spain 6-0, 6-1 in 44 minutes.

Other seeded players to win Tuesday included No. 4 Mary Pierce, No. 7 Conchita Martinez, No. 10 Anke Huber, No. 12 Anna Kournikova and No. 14 Dominique Van Roost in the women's singles, and No. 7 Thomas Enqvist, No. 8 Alex Corretja, No. 12 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and No. 14 Nicolas Kiefer in men's play.



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