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Friday, May 29, 2009
The sounds, screeches, squalls and shrieks of Larcher de Brito

By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com

"Ennhheeee!"

PARIS -- The whistles and boos cascaded down on the burnt sienna floor of Court Philippe Chatrier and Aravane Rezai waved her hand in disgust.

"Too much," she said, shaking her head.

Later, the French player again appealed to the chair umpire Mohammad El Jennati.

"It's impossible to play," Rezai said. "Please, there are limits."

The object of her objection?

The searing, sonic shrieks of one Michelle Larcher de Brito, the 16-year-old Portuguese phenom who plays out of the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Larcher de Brito played a game first set, but fell to Rezai 7-6 (3), 6-2 in a third-round match Friday.

The postmatch handshake, if you want to call it that, was a tepid hand touch (with no eye contact) that was so transparently insincere the crowd "ooohed" and sent Larcher de Brito off the court to a chorus of more catcalls.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Michelle Larcher de Brito unleashes shrieks so loud that it can be impossible to play.

"Obviously, wasn't too much of a great feeling," Larcher de Brito admitted afterward, sounding emotional. "I played her last time in Miami. She did the same thing. I guess that was her tactic to throw me off a little bit.

"It threw me off a little bit, I guess, because the crowd was against me. I guess she has to find a way to win. Got a little bit under my skin."

Later, Rezai said she thought the grunting was a tactic employed by Larcher de Brito.

"But I managed to block that out and I tried to impress her and make her understand that she was not dominating, that this is not done.

"When she was winning she never complained," Larcher de Brito said, "Only when I started to get my game going, then all of a sudden, my noise is a nuisance."

It was a contentious match, with respect to both tennis and the piercing quality and sheer volume of sound.

Larcher de Brito is playing in her first Grand Slam singles main draw, but by consensus she is already at the top of the shrill scale. She has been a force, advancing through qualifying and winning her first two rounds, including a marvelous win over No. 15 seed Zheng Jie of China.

Her shrieks -- calling them grunts just doesn't do them justice -- are breathtaking (literally) and so high-pitched that one suspects dogs on the other side of Paris are complaining, too. Larcher de Brito unleashes them on virtually every stroke:

• Serves provoke a relatively modest emission of "Ennnhh!"

• Ground strokes produce a more forceful "Ennhheeee!" The bigger the stroke, the bigger -- and higher -- the result.

• Important misses by Larcher de Brito and her opponent lead to a jarring (some would say disturbing), plaintive wail: "Eeennnyyeeeahhhhh."

At times, the shrieks last so long they continue to the point that the ball is hitting an opponent's racket, which seems to cross the threshold of sportsmanship. These sound like a cat getting swung about by the tail.

From the beginning, Rezai, a solid top-80 player, complained. Soon there were several representatives of the French Tennis Federation and Sony Ericsson WTA Tour lurking around the court, whispering into walkie-talkies and staying in communication with El Jennati.

"In five matches, no one has complained," Larcher de Brito said to El Jennati. "Do you ask [Maria] Sharapova to keep quiet?"

And so the crowd turned on Larcher de Brito. At one point, Rezai started trying to out-shriek her; unsuccessfully, of course.

"Yeah, I tried to do the same, but I don't scream like that," Rezai said. "It really did upset me, because it was really unpleasant."

Sadly, all the focus on her audio output obscures the fact that Larcher de Brito can really play. She has all the shots, albeit with a 5-foot-5, 125-pound frame, she doesn't have the power to trade strokes with the very best players. Not yet, anyway.

"The girl has [guts]," said Bollettieri from Florida. "In her mind, she wants to play offense all the time. She doesn't like to come to net, but we're working on that.

"She has what you can't teach. She is not afraid. She doesn't blink."

In the end her weakest weapon, her serve, let Larcher de Brito down. She had no aces and 12 double faults, none more critical than the fifth point of the first-set tiebreaker and in the fourth game of the second set, when she lost her serve.

"Always been kind of a weak spot, really," she said. "It's something I really need to work on."

Said Rezai: "She fights, but she still has a lot to learn. She's very young, and I think she's just going through a phase."

Five wins here should vault Larcher de Brito into the top 100, somewhere between Nos. 89-91, which places her, at the age of 16, in the company of players like Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams.

"She's a little hesitant on the second serve, which isn't going to work on the ladies' tour," said Bollettieri, who has coached 10 No. 1 players over his long career. "She needs to add a good defensive stroke, a slice or a heavy deep ball."

Sharapova, another Bollettieri protégé, clearly has the bigger strokes, but who has the bigger sound: Sharapova or Larcher de Brito?

"S---, man," Bollettieri said. "The little one comes out ahead of Sharapova, no contest.

"That will scare the death of you."

Five things we learned on Day 6

1. Agnes Szavay goes down to the minors and comes back a giant-killer: Her third-round win over Venus Williams was technically an upset, but the 20-year-old from Hungary is starting to make this a habit.

After losing her first four matches of the year, Szavay actually entered a qualifier in Acapulco -- ranked No. 28 in the world -- to get more match experience. It was an unusual step, but since then she's been rolling, beating Ana Ivanovic in Miami, Victoria Azarenka in Madrid, and now Williams in Paris.

2. Being friends doesn't guarantee any favors: You would think Fernando Verdasco would throw his good friend and fellow Spanish player Nicolas Almagro a bone here, say, a fourth set. But no.

Verdasco wrecked Almagro in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), to advance to the fourth round at Roland Garros for the third straight year.

"To be honest, we do get along well," Verdasco said later. "I was 100 percent there to win the match. Maybe I was not very aggressive on the most important points, but I did fight. It's just out of respect for him, perhaps."

3. Dinara Safina is en fuego: This is really getting out of hand.

The world No. 1 has played three successful matches so far and lost a total of four games in six sets. Four games. In six sets. Crazy.

Safina destroyed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-0 and now plays Aravane Rezai, the Frenchwoman who survived a squall of shrieks from Michelle Larcher de Brito.

"I play aggressive, and I'm going for my shots," Safina said, ominously. "Let's see who's going to be stronger."

4. Quiz time: Who is the only man not named Nadal or Federer to be ranked among the ATP World Tour's top five for four years running?

The answer: Nikolay Davydenko.

The Russian is 27 years old now and his ranking has dropped to No. 11, but he claims this is a good thing.

"I'm not disappointed," he said, "because I really enjoy [being] out of the top 10, because not so much pressure I have. I don't need to make [like] some media star, like top-10 guys doing every week."

Davydenko is comfortable on clay and at Roland Garros, in particular, where he has reached the semifinals twice. On Friday, he beat a good player, Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

5. Tennis Tweet(s) of the day:

ANDY RODDICK: hello!!! who's gonna be the 15,000th follower?

JUSTIN GIMELSTOB: why is Roddick going for 15k followers and I'm working toward 1200? is it his USOPEN title? Davis Cup championship? beautiful wife? jealous

JUSTIN GIMELSTOB: the one thing I have over Andy is thicker hair, doesn't that count for something? maybe a token 1k more followers?

Check out our Twitter page and don't miss a moment of the latest tennis news.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Rafa watch

Nadal

On Friday, Rafael Nadal answered eight questions in his postmatch press conference, six of them about drug testing.

The four-time defending champion here at Roland Garros offered a spirited defense of his friend Richard Gasquet, the Frenchman who tested positive for cocaine in March in Miami.

"I support him," Nadal said. "I'm certain that he's not taking anything. He's not taking cocaine. I know him. He's a good friend of mine, and I discussed this with him last week.

"No, no, impossible. He's most certainly not taking cocaine. You know what the world is like today. You know, when you go to a party, anything can happen these days. If you kiss a girl who's taken cocaine, anything can happen, and that's the truth. That's reality, and this can destroy your life or your career, rather, and this is most unfair."

Nadal railed against the invasiveness of the drug-testing system.

"I was on Monday in Madrid. I was with my friends. Then I have a bath. My mother called me. She told me the guys were in my house in Madrid. It was my only free evening. I have to take this anti-doping control.

"[David] Ferrer and Fernando [Verdasco] were tested as well, at 6 a.m. because they had played a five-set match. It's crazy. I don't know if, from the legal point of view, this is correct. That is, to know where you are every single moment of your life, and to account for this. It's wrong.

"I want tennis to be as clean as possible, of course. This is crystal clear. But there's room for maneuvering. You see, there's a certain type of leeway."

In other news, Nadal beat two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 to advance to a fourth-round match against Robin Soderling of Sweden, who defeated David Ferrer in a fourth-set tiebreaker.

-- Greg Garber

I'll be "back"

Federer

For some time now, Roger Federer has been complaining about his aching back. He's 27 now and he's discovering what many of us already know: It's hell getting old.

How bad is Federer's back? Someone who knows him recently suggested looking at double faults as a window into his level of functionality. Bending your back is critical to the serve and, this person said, when Federer's back isn't bending he is particularly susceptible to double faults.

If this is true, Federer's back must be feeling pretty good.

For the past three years, Federer has averaged a little over a double fault per match. Heading into the spring clay-court, Federer was averaging nearly three double faults per match. And they came in some unfortunate spots, most notably his Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal.

Federer had 67 doubles coming into Roland Garros -- only 10 fewer than all of last year -- but he has worked his average down to slightly less than two. And, through two matches and seven sets here, he has stroked exactly zero double faults.

-- Greg Garber

Cruisin' Croatian

Cilic

No. 13 seed Marin Cilic vs. No. 18 Radek Stepanek. On paper, at least, it might have been the thorniest of all the third-round matches

Well, that makes the 20-year-old Croatian the equivalent of scissors, because he shredded Stepanek 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

Cilic -- a spindly 6-6, 180 pounds with a big, big game -- lost only 11 games in his first two matches, the fewest since Guillermo Vilas danced into the third round with only 10 games dropped.

So Cilic is through to the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the fourth time in his young life, matching his progress at the 2008 and 2009 Australian Open and 2008 Wimbledon.

This despite the fact that clay does not reward his big-shot capabilities.

"Clay is the surface I grew up on," he said. "Hard court is a little bit easier to play on. Points are shorter, so when I'm playing well I think I can beat some good guys."

A personal best -- a spot in the quarterfinals -- might be a difficult task because world No. 3 Andy Murray will be in his way.

"I haven't played him so far on clay except in juniors and before," Cilic said. "I think he's playing not so bad on clay. But obviously it's not his best surface, so I have also some chance to play good tennis, to get in good position to maybe win the match."

-- Greg Garber

Playing like a champ

Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic is the defending champion here, but you'd never know it. She's seeded No. 8 this year at Roland Garros and has been whistling along under the radar while newly minted No. 1 Dinara Safina has been cast as the (increasingly) heavy favorite.

Ivanovic likely will have something to say about.

On Friday, she was the first woman into the fourth round after a convincing 6-0, 6-2 victory over Iveta Benesova. Ivanovic, who became the No. 1 player last year after her first Grand Slam victory, would meet Safina -- herself a 6-2, 6-0 winner over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova -- in the quarterfinals.

Afterward, Ivanovic called it her best match of the year.

"I hope I play [Safina]," Ivanovic said. "I feel my game is coming back, and I feel more confident and more comfortable on the court. I really miss competition in last months, so I'm really happy to have the opportunity to play more matches."

Ivanovic, 21, has had a rough go since winning at Roland Garros. Her only other title in the last year was Linz, in October, and she has been troubled by a right knee injury, which forced her to withdraw from Madrid.

-- Greg Garber

Critic's choice

Roddick

Andy Roddick vs. Marc Gicquel: This is Roddick's "Star Trek" match: a chance for him to boldly go where he's never been before; namely, the fourth round of the French Open. His 32-year-old opponent has never been there either. They'll play on the reputedly slower surface of Suzanne Lenglen Stadium, which isn't Roddick's favorite venue. Journeyman Gicquel has been enjoying some late-career success, but the No. 46 has a mediocre record on clay. Crowd support won't be enough to carry him past Roddick, for whom this qualifies as a semi-significant occasion. Beam him up.

ESPN.com prediction: Roddick in straight sets.

-- Bonnie D. Ford