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Kuerten's 'love story' keeps getting better

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Published May 30, 2004

PARIS - Inspired by the familiar chants of "Guga! Guga!" at Roland Garros, three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten pulled off the latest French Open upset.

Kuerten again rose to the occasion in the tournament he loves best and beat top-ranked Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the third round Saturday.

Playing like the Kuerten of old, Guga - his nickname - broke serve twice for an early lead and held his final 14 service games without facing a break point. He won despite a sore right hip that required arthroscopic surgery in 2002 and has often hampered him since.

The result delighted the crowd on center court, where Kuerten has been a fan favorite since 1997, when he won his first French Open title when he was 20 and unseeded.

"It's been a love story since the beginning," the amiable Brazilian said. "I came here in bad shape, playing bad. But every time I go on the court, it seems something special happens with the love and passion I have for the tournament. That brings the best out in me.

"For sure today was one of these days that you cannot ask anything else from your game."

On the women's side, two former champions advanced: No. 2-seeded Serena Williams and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati. No. 4 Venus Williams eliminated 2000 champion Mary Pierce 6-3, 6-1.

In a match that finished at dusk, No. 20 Marat Safin won his second five-setter in a row, overcoming two match points in the fourth set to beat qualifier Potito Starace 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Safin, who caused a stir in the second round by dropping his shorts to celebrate a point, this time had the crowd booing for an injury timeout. He needed to have his left hand taped when Starace was serving for the match in the fourth set. After he closed out the victory, he walked off center court to cheers and jeers.

Federer joined on the sidelines several other high-profile first-week losers, including defending champions Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin-Hardenne, who was the top-seeded woman. This is the first time both top-seeded players have been eliminated before the fourth round.

But Federer is accustomed to early departures. The reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion lost in the opening round at Roland Garros in 2002 and '03.

"The last three years haven't been the best for me here," Federer said. "I just didn't play like I can. This is a little bit of a disappointment for me. I can play better."

There was nothing in Federer's tournament start to make anyone think his quest would not continue deep into the second week. He had dropped no sets and only 17 games in his first two matches. Kuerten, conversely, lost 35 games in his first-round match alone, a five-set gut check against Nicolas Almagro.

In the second set against Federer, Kuerten received treatment for his right thigh, around the area of his dodgy hip.

The Williams sisters stayed on course for a showdown in the semifinals.

Serena Williams, the '02 champion, overcame an erratic serve and a rocky stretch to beat Silvija Talaja 6-0, 6-4. She had a 5-0 lead after 16 minutes despite five double-faults. She finished with nine but dominated with her return, breaking serve six times. "I predominantly don't hit nine doubles in a tournament, let alone a match," she said. "It was weird."

Talaja won only three points on her serve in the first set, but Williams' play became ragged after she took a 6-0, 2-0 lead. Williams said she lost concentration, which sometimes happens to her. "I'm thinking about other things," she said. "I'll think of crazy stuff, like what I'm going to eat tonight."

Venus Williams, who has yet to lose a set, needed barely an hour to advance against Pierce, seeded 30th.

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