No. 1 Kuerten is bounced

Energetic Kafelnikov gains Open semifinal

U.s. Open

September 07, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Yevgeny Kafelnikov blasted a forehand cross court and the usually animated, frenetic Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten stood flat-footed on Arthur Ashe Stadium and watched it go by.

A man with an American flag stood up in the upper deck and sang the American national anthem, delaying the start of 10th game of the first set with Kuerten serving to remain in the set at 5-4.

When he was done, so was Kuerten, as his serve was broken and Kafelnikov was in route to winning 11 straight games on his way to a 6-4, 6-0, 6-3 quarterfinal victory in the U.S. Open yesterday.

He will now face the winner of last night's late match between American Andy Roddick and Australian Lleyton Hewitt in tomorrow's semifinal. His victory also meant that with Marat Safin playing in tomorrow's other semifinal, against Pete Sampras, it is the first time two Russians have made it to semifinals in of the same Grand Slam. "I think that man singing threw me off, a lot," said Kuerten, the No. 1 seed. "Half the song would have been enough."

But it was not really the man in the upper deck who threw off Kuerten. From the very beginning his energy level was at low ebb. As thin as skinny spaghetti, he played as if he was overcooked.

"I don't know where my energy went," he said, smiling from under a cap, his golden locks springing out on both sides. "I couldn't find too much my pace, you know. I couldn't see myself running and going for the shots. And that's just what you say. I didn't have any energy to step up and play my best."

Across the court, Kafelnikov was a study in contrast. Not just because he was energized and ready to play and not just because his serve and ground strokes and volleys were on.

But because he really cared about the outcome.

Kuerten has won three French Open titles, three more Grand Slam titles than he ever expectedto win anywhere. Now, the tennis world looks to him to push himself to become an all-court champion. It doesn't matter that he has won hard-court titles elsewhere or that he has played so consistently over the year on every surface that he is ranked No. 1 in the world.

It will never be enough for some until Kuerten wins on the U.S. Open hard courts.

Kuerten did win over additional fans this week, with wonderful come-from-behind performances that showed the heart and guts he is known for on clay. Yesterday he was asked how much he wants to win a Grand Slam title on a surface that is not red clay.

"If it come, it come for me," Kuerten said. "If not, I'll be trying. It's not that I don't care, but I'm not giving all my life for this. I prefer to be happy, let's say, with my family, myself. If I have to change to win a Slam, I don't need to win. That's for sure. If I win and I stay happy as I am, it will be great. If I don't and I stay the same way, it will be wonderful."

As to whether he had let himself down yesterday, Kuerten offered a mixed view.

"I think, if you don't get upset when you lose, it's very bad," he said. "So I feel disappointed and I feel frustrated. But, also, maybe tonight I can have a good dinner, drink one beer, go out. So if I win, I didn't have this chance. That's the good part."

To Kafelnikov, it was no doubt unthinkable.

He has two Grand Slam titles - 1996 French Open and 1999 Australian Open - and he had made it to the semifinals here in 1999. He lost that year to Andre Agassi, and since then, he wondered if he'd ever get back to the semifinals.

"The opportunities to get this far are so rare," he said. "When you get one, you have to take it. For me, I really didn't know if I'd have this chance again. I'm getting older, the competition is getting tougher. There are only so many chances."

And so, while Kuerten was playing lifeless game after lifeless game, letting his chance pass him by, Kafelnikov was working hard to make the most of what he'd been given.

"The key was winning the first set," said Kafelnikov, who won points on 82 percent of his first serves and cashed five of 11 break point chances. "Once I did that, I knew at least I was going to be around a little bit longer time than in the previous matches. He wasn't going to dominate me like did in the French Open.

"I showed him from the first point on that I wasn't going to give up the match easily, like, perhaps, he would have thought."

Kafelnikov was "a little nervous inside." The score said it was a walk in the park. The 11-game binge said it was easy. But to Kafelnikov, it didn't seem that way.

"I knew how important the match is for me," he said. "I didn't want it to be like three times in the French Open where I have the match in my hand and just not able to close out. Today was different. I cannot describe why it happened. I was able to keep my concentration on a very high level and for every question he made to me, I had an answer. That's something that I'm proud of."

And now Kafelnikov has a chance at the final, as does countryman Safin.

"If two Russians make the final," said Kafelnikov, "I cannot ever describe what we will feel like to play for one of the most prestigious trophies. But I tell you, for the fans back in our country it will be the same excitement as Sampras vs. Agassi was [Wednesday night]."

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