- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

PARIS — More than 4 hours into his third five-set victory at the French Open, Albert Costa leaned over the net, head down, tongue hanging. The defending champion appeared to be peering into a well, searching for drops of energy.

At the other end of Roland Garros, top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt screamed at himself, trying to get back into a groove as a big lead slipped away in his own marathon.

There’s a special skill to grinding out long matches on clay, one that Costa suddenly has acquired, Hewitt still lacks — and the top women don’t seem to need.

A week ago, Costa’s 10-year record didn’t include a single comeback from a two-set deficit. Now he’s done it twice: in the first round and against unseeded Nicolas Lapentti in the third, winning 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 yesterday. Hewitt, meanwhile, dropped the last six games to No.28 Tommy Robredo 4-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

“If I have to keep playing matches like this, I don’t know how far I can go,” Costa said. “I’m going to have to win one of these matches quickly.”

A couple of his sets against Lapentti lasted longer than entire matches played yesterday by Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati, all past finalists. Each dropped only three games.

Lindsay Davenport, troubled by a toe injury and never fond of clay, won handily, too, on a day when seven of eight women’s matches finished in straight sets. The quarterfinalists will be determined today.

Costa gets today off, and he needs it. He’s been on court nearly 12 hours already, playing 148 games. His next foe — No.32 Arnaud Clement, the last Frenchman in the field — waded through merely 81 and hasn’t lost a set.

Costa-Lapentti was packed with as much drama as a miniseries and was just as long. They hugged at the net when it ended; later, they accused each other of gamesmanship.

With the temperature around 80, both sought treatment from trainers and took bathroom breaks. After one, Lapentti returned to the court looking like he had taken a trip to the market, toting a can of soda, a bottle of water and a banana.

Costa got a neck rub in the second set, while Lapentti was hit by leg cramps and got his thighs massaged several times. By the fifth set, Lapentti moved as though walking barefoot on coals. So he camped out at the baseline, relying on heavily spun drop shots.

“I was beginning to think, ‘Am I going to play for more than 4 hours and lose to a guy who can’t even run?’” Costa said.

He bristled at Lapentti’s delay tactics, which included stretching or slowly going over to grab water between points, and yelled at the chair umpire to curtail them. Lapentti, ranked 58th, was warned for delay of game at 2-2 in the final set. When he sat down, he was told he couldn’t ask for a timeout and would have to quit.

“I said, ‘No, no, no. I want to keep playing.’ I just tried to hang in there, but it was too tough,” said Lapentti, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 2002. “I didn’t like the way he was trying to push the umpire to make me play quicker. I just don’t think that’s very nice from him, because he knew I was in pain.”

Before the pain, Lapentti produced the shot of the tournament. Chasing a lob with his back to the net, he flicked his racket to hit the ball between his legs, producing a lob that floated over Costa and fell in.

Lapentti actually won more points, 162-161.

The back of Costa’s white shirt was freckled with specks of red clay by the end of what he called “a tremendous match.”

“I never play a match like this. At the end, I couldn’t move,” he said. “It’s a very special match, because I was fighting all the time and playing and trying and trying and trying.”

Hewitt is widely regarded as one of the tour’s grittiest players, a quality that helped him win the U.S. Open in 2001, and Wimbledon in 2002. Until yesterday, he never had relinquished a two-set edge — and Robredo never had overcome one.

But Hewitt admits he’s not at his best on clay and only once has been a French Open quarterfinalist.

“I just took the foot off the pedal a little bit,” he said. “I’ll look back on it, and I won’t be that disappointed.”

Robredo and Costa were joined in the fourth round by countrymen Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2002 runner-up who beat Tim Henman in four sets, and Felix Mantilla. A fifth Spaniard, 1998 champ Carlos Moya, advanced Friday.

During his news conference, Robredo asked, “Did Costa win? He was losing when I started my match.”

Told Costa erased a 2-0 deficit, too, Robredo grinned.

“Things change,” he said.

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