Red clay shaping men's draw

South Americans ruling French

top 4 seeds out

French Open

June 01, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS -- The red clay at Roland Garros has the same rich look as the suede they're selling in the expensive fashion houses on Rue du Faubourg and Avenue Montaigne.

And the clay at the French Open is costly, too.

Yesterday, when the last of the men's quarterfinalists were determined, the likes of world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 2 Pete Sampras, No. 3 Patrick Rafter and No. 4 Carlos Moya were nowhere in sight. The clay, it seems, is very costly this season. Never before in the modern era has Roland Garros been without its top four men's seeds this early.

The price of winning on clay was too much for them. But out on Court Suzanne Lenglen, No. 8 Gustavo Kuerten, his legs and arms tanned the same burnt-red hue as the playing surface, showed what it takes to excel on the slippery surface.

He used a sharp, well-placed serve and a marvelous array of shots that kept Bohdan Ulihrach on the run and eventually knocked him out of this Grand Slam, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Kuerten, the 1997 French champion, now all of 22, then watched his Brazilian compatriot, Fernando Meligeni, upset No. 14 seed Felix Mantilla, 6-1, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7-1).

The victory by Meligeni puts four South Americans in the French quarterfinals.

"I think it is a great surface for us," Kuerten said. "We grow on clay, so it is better for us to play in these conditions. [Marcelo] Rios, me, [Marcelo] Filippini and now Meligeni, we are opening some expectations for others."

In the day's other two men's singles matches: No. 6 Alex Corretja, last year's runner-up, beat Stefan Koubek, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5, and Andrei Medvedev, who upset Sampras in the second round last week, had to fight off France's last hope, the unheralded Arnaud di Pasquale, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.

The winners joined quarterfinalists No. 13 Andre Agassi, Filippini, No. 9 Rios and Dominik Hrbaty, who all made the final eight over the weekend and will play for a place in the semifinals today.

The top half of the women's quarterfinalists, No. 1 Martina Hingis vs. Barbara Schwartz and No. 7 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario vs. Sylvia Plischke, also will compete for semifinal spots.

Ulihrach, who yesterday was slowed in the third set by a pain in his groin, was asked if he could see Kuerten as the 1999 French Open champion.

"Maybe," Ulihrach said. "Could be. I think maybe, after seeing Agassi [Sunday], Agassi is maybe [the] only one who can beat him."

Agassi, who is to play 110th-ranked Filippini today, is the biggest question of the tournament.

Only two weeks ago, he was forced to pull out of his last tournament, the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany, with a bad shoulder. Yet Sunday, he was down, 4-6, 1-4, to defending French Open Champion and clay specialist Moya and rallied to win, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1.

Agassi is known to be streaky. He can be down and up and up and out of the same tournament overnight. But it is obvious how the French embrace him and Kuerten, whom they want to see in Sunday's final.

And it is clear by the way Agassi is talking and working that he clearly wants to be there.

"I'm excited to be working hard on the surface that hasn't come too easy for me in the last few years," he said. "I'm well aware of the fact that if I can establish myself on this surface, that would only help me to beat more guys on the hard-court season and the grass. It's a great opportunity for me with a lot to gain."

It has always been difficult for him to divide his focus. If he was totally focused on tennis, his tennis would be superb. If he was more interested in off-court activities, his tennis would suffer. Certainly, with the reported breakup with his wife, Brooke Shields, he is looking for something to focus on.

"If it wouldn't be tennis, it would be something else," Agassi said. "But this is what I want to be doing. I think peace is something you work hard at every day."

When he first got here, he said he was taking life a day at a time, but added he felt pretty strong.

And certainly, to get as far as the quarterfinals in this Grand Slam is an indication of the truth of that. He hasn't been this far in a Grand Slam event since making the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 1996. He hasn't been past the second round here since 1995, when he made the semifinals and was favored to win.

"I'm feeling much better than I have in the last three years," said Agassi, 29. "I physically feel a lot stronger -- my shoulder is holding up pretty good. And feeling good, my eagerness is there for the necessary grinding that's required to tough out some of these matches.

"At this point in my career, I need to establish myself as one of the best players, and I couldn't think of a better place to do it than right here on the dirt."

The very expensive dirt on the beautifully manicured courts in Paris.

Men's singles, fourth round

Alex Corretja (6) def. Stefan Koubek, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5.

Gustavo Kuerten (8) def. Bohdan Ulihrach, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Fernando Meligeni def. Felix Mantilla (14), 6-1, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7-1).

Andrei Medvedev def. Arnaud Di Pasquale, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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