- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) The wheelchairs were there, if needed, resting side-by-side in the corridor leading from the court to the locker room.
For 4 muggy hours yesterday at this wearying U.S. Open, 2000 champion Marat Safin and Nicolas Kiefer traded big serves and crackling strokes to the point of exhaustion. By the end, both were cramping. Kiefer barely could walk, his body contorting in pain.
The second-seeded Safin, not known for his mental toughness on court, kept his head in the game when he really needed to and had just enough energy left to win the first-round thriller 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4).
"How was I feeling? Dead. Completely dead," the Russian said. "I was choking so badly. I was embarrassed. I couldn't serve, I couldn't play, I couldn't move."
Still, he and Kiefer managed to stay on court until the bitter (for Kiefer) end, quite an accomplishment so far at the Open. Seven men have quit during first-round matches, a record for a Grand Slam tournament.
"All the players are praying not to get injured. Any small injuries even a finger, or some small muscles you don't even know about can bring you trouble," said Safin, who withdrew from a tournament in Indianapolis this month because of injured ribs. "Tennis is getting a little bit more powerful. We're playing much faster. That's why the body breaks."
Among yesterday's victims was 1998 finalist Mark Philippoussis, who wrenched his long-troubled left knee in the fourth set against No.24 Sjeng Schalken and had to stop four games later. Philippoussis was leading 2-1 in sets.
Jan-Michael Gambill of the United States moved into the second round when his opponent, Julian Knowle, stopped because of lower back pain.
In other action, two-time defending champion Venus Williams and third-seeded Jennifer Capriati both opened with perfect victories: 6-0, 6-0. Williams overpowered Mirjana Lucic to win her 14th straight match, and Capriati beat Bethanie Mattek at night. Monica Seles, who won the Open twice in the 1990s, eliminated Zsofia Gubacsi 6-3, 6-3, and 1997 winner Martina Hingis returned to Grand Slam play after ankle surgery and beat Marissa Irvin 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
Seeded winners included No.7 Kim Clijsters, who next faces wild-card entry Mashona Washington, the sister of 1996 Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington; No.10 Amelie Mauresmo, and No.14 Chanda Rubin.
Defending men's champion Lleyton Hewitt had a very matter-of-fact debut, beating Nicolas Coutelot of France 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. Also advancing were: 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya, No.18 Alex Corretja, and No.19 Xavier Malisse.
"The closer it got to 6-0, 6-0, the more I wanted it to be that score," said Williams, who never faced a break point once she got on court.
She curled up in a chair in the trainer's room to read a newspaper while waiting around quite a bit her match followed Safin-Kiefer.
They provided the day's best theater, combining for 113 winners and 27 aces, not to mention countless arms-raised celebrations and guttural yells of frustration. Safin broke two rackets by spiking them.
Both players argued calls.
"Why in the fifth set?" Safin screamed at a linesman after a foot fault.
"Show me the mark!" Kiefer demanded of the chair umpire after a lob by Safin was ruled in.
Safin has an all-or-nothing history in Grand Slam tournaments, reaching the semifinals or better at three straight times before bowing out in the second round at Wimbledon. He was fined $2,000 for lack of effort after losing to a qualifier in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open.
He nearly gave away yesterday's match against Kiefer, a German once ranked as high as No.6 and labeled "the next Boris Becker." Now he's out of the top 50 after starting the year 4-16.
One moment, Safin was brilliant: a perfectly angled cross-court backhand passing shot on the run. And in the very next, he looked like a weekend hacker: sending a sitter into the upper deck.
Serving for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, Safin was broken when he double-faulted. Kiefer then evened the set at 5-5, somehow mustering strength in his legs for consecutive aces to hold serve at love.
In the next game, back-to-back forehand errors by Safin gave Kiefer a break point, but the German put a slice backhand into the net. In a match already more than 4 hours old, Safin then cranked a service winner at 132 mph, and two more service winners helped make it 6-5.
At the ensuing changeover, trainers massaged and iced the legs of both players. Safin even got on his stomach and had a trainer stretch his legs.
In the tiebreaker, Kiefer hit a forehand into the net and lost his footing, sliding to the ground. Safin called for a trainer, who went out on court and stretched Kiefer's left leg, then helped him rise.
Two points later it was over, and Safin walked off under his own power, even stopping to sign dozens of autographs. Kiefer left his rackets and bag behind and was helped off by a trainer.
Kiefer, who needed intravenous fluids, wasn't all that impressed by the entertainment he and his opponent provided.
"I prefer to win," he said. "In three sets."
The longest Open match on record was the 1992 semifinal in which Stefan Edberg beat Michael Chang in 5 hours, 26 minutes. Philippoussis headed to Miami to see the doctor who operated on his knee in March 2001. Mary Pierce, twice a major champion but unseeded at this Open, lost to No.32 Paola Suarez 7-6 (3), 6-3.

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