Originally created 08/31/02

Kuerten knocks off Safin at U.S. Open



NEW YORK -- With each flowing forehand, each biting serve, Gustavo Kuerten looked less and less like the unseeded player he is and more and more like the Grand Slam champion he has been.

Marat Safin did little to slow the transformation.

In a matchup that, judging by names and accomplishments alone, belongs in the latter stages of a major tournament rather than merely the second round, Kuerten dominated No. 2-seeded Safin 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 Friday at the U.S. Open.

"Maybe today is my happiest day of the year," three-time French Open champion Kuerten said, his disposition as bright as his orange T-shirt. "I feel much more relieved. I feel I have nothing to lose. Winning the match, I got my confidence back. I feel happy with myself and my game."

That hasn't been the case for much of 2002, a season interrupted in February by right hip surgery that kept him off tour for two months. Kuerten came into the U.S. Open toting a 13-10 match record and a ranking of 46th - making him the first player in 31 years to go from being seeded No. 1 at the Open one year to being unseeded the next.

"He's hungry," said Safin, who beat Pete Sampras to win the 2000 Open. "He wants to come back. He wants to win matches."

Among the contenders moving into the third round with victories: No. 11 Andy Roddick, who turned 20 Friday and was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" from the stands; and No. 3 Tommy Haas, who was steamed that his coach wasn't relaying advice from the stands - even though such help is banned.

Other seeded winners included Wimbledon semifinalist Tim Henman, French Open finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 19 Xavier Malisse. But 10th-seeded Sebastien Grosjean lost to fellow Frenchman Arnaud Clement 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Lindsay Davenport, the 1998 champion, reached the Open's fourth round for the seventh year in a row, beating 17-year-old French qualifier Marion Bartoli 6-3, 6-1. Davenport, seeded fourth as she plays her first major since right knee surgery in January, had 11 aces among a whopping 37 winners - 34 more than Bartoli.

Kuerten was asked what the unwanted time off after his operation taught him.

"The past and the future don't matter - just the moment you're living," the man known as Guga said. "So that's what I've got to worry: When the ball comes, I have to hit it, or when I'm on the court I have to practice.

"When it's gone, it's gone."

If Kuerten lives for the moment, Safin tries to get through it.

He'll smash rackets (though none Friday, which counts as progress). He'll throw his arms in the air. He'll mutter to himself after most every mistake. It's as though he's thinking, "I am much too good to ever give away a point."

"What can you say to yourself? It's just all the good things and all the bad things you can say," Safin said. "You try to react, try to maybe help. But it didn't help today."

Kuerten was just too good, striking 13 aces; his fastest of the match, 122 mph, came in the final game. He faced just two break points, erasing both, and won 24 of the 27 points on his serve in the third set.

His ratio of winners to errors was 45-24.

"He was inspired. He was everything. Even when he hit with the frame, it was perfect," Safin said. "What can you do about it? You cannot do nothing about it."

Safin had other obstacles to overcome, including a cracked rib and fatigue from a 4 1/2 -hour, cramp-inducing first-round victory over Nicolas Kiefer.

Still, the 6-foot-4 Russian can't be pleased with a second-round exit to match the one he had at Wimbledon. The two surprising flops at majors follow a string in which Safin made at least the semifinals of four straight Grand Slam events.

Kuerten, meanwhile, knows all about surprises, having won the 1997 French Open as a little-known player ranked out of the top 50 and without a single tournament title to his credit.

"Marat, for sure, knew it would be a tough match to play me, especially in a Grand Slam," said Guga, who took in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. "So I think I will always be trying to worry the guys in these tournaments, even if I'm not seeded."

Roddick's 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Raemon Sluiter opened with a 10-minute game in which the American failed to convert seven break points.

Roddick quickly took control, though, winning the next five games, and did all he could to fire up the fans at Louis Armstrong Stadium. After one winner, he waved his arms to implore them to yell louder. After another - a spectacular running crosscourt backhand - Roddick stood near the stands and bowed as the crowd roared.

Haas, on the other hand, didn't hear nearly as much as he wanted to from the seats. More specifically, from his coach.

"Once in a while, I'm just looking for help, maybe, and I didn't feel like I got it today," he said after beating Karol Kucera 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. "After being out there for almost two hours, maybe just one advice would have been nice, even though I'm not supposed to get one."

Unlike before his first-round match, Haas didn't receive any clothing advice from the tournament referee. Haas wore a standard collared, sleeved polo shirt this time, not the muscle T he was told to change out of Wednesday.