PARIS - With yesterday's last match even at one set apiece and Gustavo Kuerten suffering from a sore back, it looked as if like Michael Chang, the only U.S. man left in the third round of the French Open, had a fine chance to be the only U.S. man in the fourth round.
But Kuerten, the loose-limbed Brazilian, had other plans, and soon it was Chang who was suffering: feeling cramps coming in his legs and watching helplessly as his final forehand sailed wide after his strings broke without warning.
"Obviously, I would have loved to have done better, but step by step, little by little, we'll keep plugging away," said Chang, after Kuerten's 6-3, 6-7 (9), 6-1, 6-4 victory.
For only the second time in the 32 years of open tennis, no U.S. man has reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam event. The first time it happened was two years ago in this same grueling tournament. Not that the Americans should complain. They have won their share here in recent years: Chang doing it first at age 17 in 1989, Jim Courier doing it twice in 1991 and 1992 and Andre Agassi doing it best last year.
"Generally, the French is the one that Americans tend to struggle with the most, but ironically, we've had four Americans win here in the past 11 years," Chang said.
This year, the only Americans left in contention are women, and two of them reached the fourth round in straight sets yesterday. First was Chanda Rubin, who eliminated but hardly upset the No. 7 seed Nathalie Tauziat of France.
Tauziat's recently published work on women's tennis is selling briskly here, but the book on her as a player is that she loses her nerve on clay. Rubin won 6-4, 7-6 (3) and will next face Natasha Zvereva. Monica Seles, the No. 3 seed, needed only 48 minutes to defeat Rita Kuti Kis, an overmatched Hungarian baseliner, 6-1, 6-2.
But then Seles has been overmatching players from many nations of late, putting her downsized racquet and upgraded fitness to ferocious use: winning the Italian Open last month and losing eight games in her first three matches here.
"Definitely I feel really good out there," she said. "I've been moving well, trying to improve upon that. I've been doing a lot better with getting to balls, just getting in better position to hit the ball."
But it will get trickier from now on, however. With Lindsay Davenport's loss in the first round, the bottom half of the draw is substantially weaker than the top half where Seles lurks, and if all goes according to seeding, she will have to beat France's Amelie Mauresmo, France's (and Ohio's) Mary Pierce and Martina Hingis just to reach the final.
First comes Mauresmo, whom Seles beat in the Italian Open final and who has been playing impressively here. "I think both of us are playing some fantastic tennis coming into the tournament; it's unfortunate that we have to meet each other so early really," Seles said.
While Seles pushes forward, her friend Davenport is scheduled to leave Paris for California today to begin racing the clock to get ready to defend her Wimbledon title.
Muscle spasms in her back caused her considerable pain in her loss to Dominique Van Roost and forced her to withdraw from the women's doubles event yesterday in which she was seeded first with partner Corina Morariu. "I don't want her to play hurt just for me," Morariu said.
According to Davenport's agent, Tony Godsick, she plans to "rest for a few days, see how it feels and maybe play a warm-up tournament on grass before Wimbledon."
Martina Navratilova, meanwhile, playing in a Grand Slam event for the first time in four years, teamed with Mariaan de Swardt to win their opening doubles match.
"It was a blast to be out there, a total blast," the 43-year-old Navratilova said after their 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Sabine Appelmans and Rita Grande.
"It's fantastic. It's a treat. People say, 'Why are you still playing?' I say, 'Because I still can.' I can still compete, obviously, and play decent tennis."(Results, 6C)