Kuerten outplays top seed

Updated: May 29, 2004, 6:28 PM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- Inspired by the familiar chants of "Guga! Guga!" at Roland Garros, three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten upset top-ranked Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 Saturday in the third round of the French Open.

Kuerten has been slowed lately by a sore right hip that required arthroscopic surgery in 2002. But Guga -- his nickname -- played like the Kuerten of old, breaking serve twice for an early 2-1 lead and holding his final 14 service games without facing a break point.

The result delighted the crowd on center court, where Kuerten has been a fan favorite since winning his first French Open title in 1997 when he was 20 and unseeded.

"It's been a love story since the beginning,'' the amiable Brazilian said. "I came here in bad shape, playing bad. But every time I go on the court, it seems something special happens with the love and passion I have for the tournament. That brings the best out in me."

It was another disappointing French Open result for Federer, the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion. He lost in the opening round at Roland Garros in 2002 and 2003.

"The last three years haven't been the best for me here," Federer said. "I just didn't play like I can. This is a little bit of a disappointment for me. I can play better."

Kuerten, in contrast, advanced to the fourth round for the sixth year in a row.

"This tournament every year makes me go over my limit," said Kuerten, seeded 28th. "It's amazing to beat the No. 1 in the world, a guy who's playing great tennis."

Kuerten needed only one service break in each of the final two sets -- for a 2-1 lead in the second set and a 3-2 lead in the third. He closed out the victory with a service winner, then hopped and screamed in jubilation.

Federer's downcast demeanor during the match was reminiscent of Pete Sampras on a bad day. Federer said he struggled with his footing on the clay and with lively balls on the warmest afternoon of the tournament -- 78 degrees and sunny.

He won his second Hamburg title on clay this month but said he needs more experience at Roland Garros, where the size of center court bothers him.

Kuerten was also a factor, Federer said.

"He served good today, and he was better," Federer said. "He deserves everything the fans give him here."

In a match that finished at dusk, No. 20 Marat Safin won his second five-setter in a row, overcoming two match points in the fourth set to beat qualifier Potito Starace 6-7 (4), 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Safin, who caused a stir in the second round by dropping his shorts to celebrate a point, this time had the crowd booing for his injury timeout. He needed to have his left hand taped when Starace was serving for the match in the fourth set.

After Safin closed out the victory, he walked off center court to a mix of cheers and jeers.

Kuerten next plays No. 23 Feliciano Lopez, who beat Lee Hyung-taik 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-0, 6-3.

No. 19 Martin Verkerk, the 2003 runner-up, lost to No. 12 Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. No. 8 David Nalbandian ousted Stefan Koubek 6-7 (1), 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press