On grass, Kuerten clipping competition

Brazilian handles Manta, will face Agassi next


June 29, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Give this man red clay and hot sun. Let him slide on a court for hours, bending shots while driving his opponents into the dust.

But keep Gustavo Kuerten away from grass and rain.

Until this year, that used to be the book on Kuerten. But not anymore. The Brazilian clay-court specialist has become a grass-court ace, blasting his way into the Wimbledon quarterfinals yesterday by beating Lorenzo Manta of Switzerland, 7-5, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3.

"I'm a grass-court player," Kuerten declared with a broad smile breaking across his face. "I can come back here and improve my game. Now, it's going to be easy."

Well, not so fast.

Kuerten had never won a Wimbledon match in two previous appearances. Now, he's headed for a quarterfinal buzz-saw, facing 1992 champion Andre Agassi, a 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, 6-4 winner over big-serving Wayne Arthurs of Australia.

But give Kuerten a moment to savor the win over Manta, an unheralded qualifier. On a day that was supposed to be loaded with glittering matchups, Kuerten and Manta were shoved onto a court so remote you needed a map to get there. Yet with rain washing out much of the action in the men's round of 16, Kuerten got a chance to make a star turn.

He survived the grass, rain delays and pressure of making the most of this topsy-turvy Wimbledon.

How did it happen?

"I think maybe because of my confidence," said Kuerten, the 11th seed.

But now he's headed for Wimbledon's big leagues, a match with Agassi.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," said Kuerten, the 1997 French Open champion. "Hopefully, he won't hit too hard and he will let me play and enjoy it a little, too."

That might be a stretch. Agassi is displaying the kind of panache that brought him his previous Wimbledon title. He is clubbing forehands and muscling up on his serves.

He also is showing remarkable patience.

Against Arthurs, he had to wait around for his break points, trading tie-breakers before pulling away.

"It was definitely the greatest challenge so far," Agassi said. "I haven't faced any big servers, let alone a lefty. This was a dangerous match for me and I gave him that kind of respect."

He also gave his respect to the crowd, blowing kisses and signing autographs, acting like an entertainer and a tennis player. But he is also soaking up the atmosphere in what could be his last best chance to win Wimbledon.

"To be in the quarters alters my life a lot," he said. "There's no doubt about it. I'm shooting for an important goal and that's something that keeps the interest of the spectators. So, it's nice to give something back. It's nice to take from them. It's a great sort of win-win out there."

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