Originally created 06/09/01

Kuerten bids for third French title

PARIS -- One point from elimination six days ago, Gustavo Kuerten is now one win from his third French Open title.

The gangly Brazilian nicknamed Guga earned a berth in the final by beating Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 Friday.

Kuerten won the championship at Roland Garros in 1997 and again last year. On Sunday against Spaniard Alex Corretja, Kuerten will try to become the sixth man to win three French titles and the first since Mats Wilander earned his third title in 1988.

"I really never expected this to happen to me," said Kuerten, 24. "I don't try to compare myself with other guys. Not even in my best dreams was I able to win three times here."

This year, Kuerten admits, he has been lucky. He was one point from a straight-set defeat in the fourth round against American qualifier Michael Russell, an upset that would have ranked with the greatest in Grand Slam history.

But Kuerten survived a harrowing 26-stroke match point, with one of his shots landing on a line, and he then rallied for the victory.

"I was blessed that day," he said. "I feel myself with nothing to lose anymore. I shouldn't have won that match."

From that close call, the top-seeded Kuerten has gradually found his footing on his favorite surface, and he was in top form against the fourth-seeded Ferrero.

The speedy young Spaniard came into the match with four titles this year and a 27-2 clay-court record, the best in tennis. But he was no match for Kuerten, whose experience on the big stage helped him win most of the key points.

Ferrero had eight break-point chances in the final set but failed to convert any, and finished the match 2-for-16.

"Today was pretty much close for my perfection," Kuerten said in his broken English, which is often accompanied by a smile. "I feel like playing my best tennis. I cannot wish to play better than this."

When Ferrero sent a service return into the doubles alley on match point, Kuerten reacted with a gleeful hop-skip behind the baseline, fist raised. His coach since 1989, Larri Passos, applauded and pointed to his right arm.

Why the gesture?

"Because he had to practice with me two days, and he couldn't move his arm anymore," Kuerten explained.

Kuerten is ranked No. 1 largely because he has won 43 of his past 46 matches on clay, and he's not likely to soon shake the label of clay-court specialist because he expects to skip Wimbledon later this month. He has complained about the seeding system there and said he simply needs a rest.

"To maybe stop only three or four days and start to practice on grass again to play in Wimbledon maybe is going to be too much for myself," he said.

In the second semifinal, the 13th-seeded Corretja disappointed the crowd by beating No. 10 Sebastien Grosjean of France 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4. Corretja's only other Grand Slam final was at Roland Garros in 1998, when he lost to Carlos Moya.

"I haven't dropped a set since the first day, so that means I'm playing better than I even imagined when I came here," Corretja said.

Grosjean, who upset Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals, was unable to muster similar magic against Corretja.

"I don't have too many regrets," Grosjean said. "I played somebody stronger than me from the baseline. He played a great game."

Jennifer Capriati will be a heavy favorite Saturday in her first French final against Kim Clijsters, Belgium's first Grand Slam finalist.

And the skinny Kuerten will be heavy favorite Sunday. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be to come up with a creative way to celebrate his third title.

After surviving the marathon against Russell, Kuerten carved a heart on the court with his racket. What does he plan for Sunday?

"Maybe I can get some of Van Gogh's influence," he joked.


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