Kuerten survives U.S. Open serving duel

No. 1 delivers 33 aces in 5-set victory over pesky No. 44 Mirnyi

September 03, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Critics can always find the negative and when it comes to world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, they can find ample ammunition.

They point to his heritage. Brazilians are not known for their talent on hard courts. They point to his Grand Slam record. Three French Open crowns on clay and no other Grand Slam titles.

They forget that he was the ATP's season-ending Tennis Masters Cup champion last season. He beat Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi back-to-back on those hard courts in the semifinal and final, becoming the only player ever to accomplish the feat.

Those critics were ready to write him off last night when he fell behind unseeded Max Mirnyi by two sets. But they didn't figure on Kuerten's tenacity, a trait American tennis fans can relate to what they used to see from Jimmy Connors.

Kuerten scraped and clawed and shook his curls in frustration and eventual delight as he willed his way to a pulsating five-set victory - 6-7 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-2 - to advance to the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time.

"A great win," said Kuerten. "A lot of fight and I feel very happy. It was very difficult. I had to pull out everything I had, everything I learned all these years. It was a great payback at the end, with the win and the crowd cheering."

Perhaps even the critics will remember what they saw here over 3 hours, 31 minutes, as Kuerten unloaded 103 winners that included 33 aces while committing only 13 unforced errors.

"There's a reason why he's No. 1," said Mirnyi, ranked No. 44. "He's won many matches just like this one and, right now, he's at the top of his game."

Kuerten, who was broken only once last night, still could manage just two breaks of Mirnyi, but both came in the fifth set after he had fought through four sets and three tiebreakers to finally move out in front to stay.

"I felt my chances in the third and fourth sets were just as good as in the first two," Mirnyi said. "All those sets were very even. I didn't get many opportunities to break him and then he got on my serve a little bit better and won the fifth set."

Kuerten never stopped trying, and most of the Open crowd of 23,033 settled in for the duration of the battle on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.

With break points all but non-existent in the first two sets, Kuerten scratched to create one in the second game of the third, but Mirnyi's cross-court volley was too good and too well-placed for Kuerten to catch up to it.

He clawed for two more opportunities in the sixth game, but each time the 6-foot-5 Mirnyi, had an answer.

And in Game 10, with the crowd chanting his name - "Guga! Guga!" - Kuerten managed to have four set points on his racket, as he challenged Mirnyi for the third set. Each time he was denied. Emotion oozed. Tension built.

By the time Kuerten saw his seventh set point chance go awry, he was riled and so was the crowd. His frustration was their frustration.

And Mirnyi, 24, was like a bulldog against him. His 17th ace forced another tiebreaker. But this time, it was Kuerten who got the mini-break early and rode it to an eighth and then a ninth set point. And finally, on that ninth chance on Mirnyi's serve, Kuerten got the point.

"There was no turning point, I think," Kuerten said. "The sets were going one side to the other, one or two points made the difference. I did start to play more aggressive, but to the end it was decided by very little. We both played very great match, and I was lucky in the end."

Kuerten will go on to the fourth round to play Albert Costa, who upset No. 15 seed and Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2). Mirnyi will hang around to play doubles here, but many will view this match as an announcement that he may be ready to go to another level.

Young American Andy Roddick, seeded 18th, advanced by wiping No. 11 seed Alex Corretja off the court, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, and will next play Tommy Robredo, who upset No. 5 Juan Carlos Ferrero, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (1),

No. 16 Tommy Haas advanced with a victory over Jiri Novak, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, and No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt moved on with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Spain's No. 25 Albert Portas.

But the match of the day turned out to be the under-appreciated Kuerten against Mirnyi, who had 71 winners and 21 aces of his own. Those helped offset his 25 unforced errors.

The first set came and went in blinding serve after blinding serve. Neither Kuerten nor Mirnyi could find a way to break the other. But then came the tiebreaker and in that, Mirnyi got the early mini-break and rode it for the first set win, 7-6 (5).

At that point, Mirnyi was putting in 71 percent of his first serves. In the second set, it was 76 percent. Yet, with the set even at 5-5, Kuerten combined talent with a little luck to get only his second break-point opportunity. But it was then that Mirnyi's big serve resurfaced.

He slammed a 124 mph blast wide for a service winner and followed with aces to hold. Kuerten may have let up just a bit at that point, as Mirnyi shot ahead, 0-30, before Kuerten fought back to 30-30. But Mirnyi cashed the break point with a backhand volley for a 6-5 lead and then closed it out at 7-5 and a two-set lead.

After Kuerten took the third set, both players - if you can believe it - served stronger in the fourth set, with neither earning a break point, before the service games fourth settled into a superb demonstration of serve

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