- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

NEW YORK Gustavo Kuerten won't be sketching any hand-drawn hearts at the U.S. Open and the Deco Turf hard courts aren't the only reason.
In a surprisingly lethargic performance, Kuerten, the world's top-ranked player, fell to Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-4, 6-0, 6-3 in a quarterfinal match yesterday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With the victory, Kafelnikov advanced to tomorrow's U.S. Open semifinal his second where he will face the winner of the late match between Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.
"I could not even realize that I was going to be here again in the semifinal before the tournament [began]," said Kafelnikov, the No. 7 seed. "It's still a long way to win the title. But to get through five steps and to have two steps left to winning another major is great."
For Kuerten, the loss was the latest in a long series of subpar showings in Grand Slams held outside of France. A three-time champion at Roland Garros and the tour's undisputed clay court king, Kuerten has struggled miserably on other surfaces, failing to advance past the Wimbledon and U.S. Open quarterfinals and the Australian Open's second round.
"Clay definitely makes him unbeatable because when he has time, he prepares groundstrokes better than anybody," Kafelnikov said, referring to Kuerten's exaggerated backswing. "If you're not on top of your form, you've got
no chance beating him because he just dominates you.
"But it seems to me that on the fast surface, he doesn't have that few seconds which is necessary to create his own game like he does on clay."
Indeed, yesterday's match did little to diminish Kuerten's reputation as a one-surface Slam contender. Famous for drawing a giant heart on Roland Garros' red clay following his third French Open title in June, Kuerten again wielded his racket like an artist's brush only this time, he looked more like Jackson Pollock, splashing the court with 31 unforced errors.
Many of those mishits came during a surreal mid-match stretch that saw the 24-year-old Brazilian drop 11 straight games, five of them on serve.
Down 1-0 in the second set, Kuerten yanked a backhand wide to drop a break. Two games later, he let out a frustrated squeal as a forehand sailed long to put him in a 4-0 hole. And in the very next game, Kuerten watched helplessly as Kafelnikov served out four consecutive points to take a 5-0 lead.
During the ensuing changeover, the usually effusive Kuerten buried his face in a towel, while Kafelnikov nonchalantly sipped water from a paper cup.
"I didn't really feel myself into the game," Kuerten said. "Everything was like twice difficult for myself today: to run, to serve, to play my shots. And maybe a little bit of everything, being a little bit tired and then him playing well and a little bit of pain here and there."
Kuerten's tepid play was even more surprising given his recent hard court results. Kuerten entered the U.S. Open with a 10-match win streak, one that saw him triumph at the Tennis Masters Series at Cincinnati and reach the final at Indianapolis before retiring with a rib injury.
He also overcame a two-set deficit to defeat serve-and-volley specialist Max Mirnyi in the tournament's third round.
"I feel disappointed and I feel frustrated," Kuerten said. "But also maybe tonight I can have a good dinner, drink one beer, go out. If I win, I didn't have this chance. That's the good part."
While Kuerten flailed, Kafelnikov played efficient and composed tennis, winning 82 percent of his first serve points while holding serve for the entire match.
A two-time Grand Slam winner (1996 French Open, 1999 Australian Open) and perennial top-10 player, Kafelnikov has long been one of the tour's cleanest hitters, renowned for his powerful groundstrokes. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old Russian had struggled against Kuerten, particularly in Grand Slam quarterfinals.
In the 1997 French Open, Kafelnikov took a two-sets-to-one lead over Kuerten only to lose in five sets. Three years later, he did it again. And at Roland Garros this spring, Kafelnikov fell to Kuerten in four sets.
"Even though the score was 6-4, 6-0, 6-3, I was a little nervous inside," Kafelnikov said. "I knew how important the match is for me. I just didn't want to have previous experience happen to the match like it did in the French Open, where I'm having the match in my hand and just not able to close out."
Closing out wasn't an issue in the first set, as Kafelnikov fended off three deep Kuerten forehands before slicing a backhand winner to earn a break and the set.
As the ball caught the line, Kafelnikov pumped his fist, then hop-stepped his way to his sideline chair.
"Obviously, the key was winning the first set," Kafelnikov said. "Once I did that, I knew at least I was going to be [around] for a little bit longer time than in the previous matches. He wasn't going to dominate me like he did in the French Open."
Kafelnikov also attacked the net on more than one occasion no mean feat for a noted baseliner winning 25 of 35 net approaches.
After the match, he said his newfound aggressiveness stemmed from a conversation with television commentator and former player John McEnroe.
"I talked to Mac a few times in the [TV] booth," Kafelnikov said. "He was actually giving me a hard time, [saying], 'How come such accomplished player like you are doesn't serve and volley as much as other guys?' "
If Kafelnikov advances to Sunday's final, he could face countryman, semifinalist and defending champion Marat Safin in what would be the first all-Russian final in Grand Slam history.
"That would be great," Kafelnikov said. "I don't want to even look that far ahead at the moment. I'm just happy to be a part of Super Saturday. That's all."


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