Kuerten closer to fourth French Open title

Updated: May 31, 2004, 8:58 PM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- With the red clay he loves caked on his shirt and shorts, Gustavo Kuerten moved one round closer to his fourth French Open title Monday.

Kuerten took a hard spill in the final game but was unhurt, and five points later he completed a 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Feliciano Lopez for a berth in the quarterfinals.

"Look at me," Kuerten said, smiling and filthy moments after the match. "This never happened to me in my life. I'm all dirty."

While Kuerten again won despite a sore hip, Marat Safin was unable to overcome hand blisters, and his wild run at Roland Garros ended with a loss to David Nalbandian, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.

Safin played with tape on both hands to cover blisters that developed during a five-set victory in the third round Saturday. The 20th-seeded Russian required treatment from a trainer at least seven times, including once in the middle of a game.

Nalbandian, seeded eighth, is one of four Argentines in the men's quarterfinals, a Grand Slam record.

"I'm a little surprised," Nalbandian said. "It's not like this every day. I hope it will be all-Argentine in the semifinal."

That could happen because each men's quarterfinal will include an Argentine -- Nalbandian, Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Coria or Juan Ignacio Chela. Nalbandian faces fellow South American Kuerten on Wednesday.

No. 12-seeded Lleyton Hewitt reached the French Open quarterfinals for the second time when he beat Xavier Malisse 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (6).

Hewitt's next opponent will be unseeded Gaudio, who beat Igor Andreev 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. Andreev upset defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in the second round.

Kuerten arrived in Paris seeded just 28th and troubled by a right hip that required surgery in 2002. But Roland Garros brings out his best, and he upset top-ranked Roger Federer in straight sets in the third round.

The Brazilian's latest victory was just as efficient. He dominated with his serve and faced only one break point.

"I never expected this to happen," said Kuerten, fighting back tears. "I'm very emotional right now."

He twice requested massage treatment from a trainer but moved well throughout the match, sliding across the clay with his customary grace. One pivotal point sent him from corner to corner and back before he pulled a forehand winner crosscourt, prompting a roar from the center-court crowd.

Kuerten broke for a 3-1 lead in the first set and stayed ahead the rest of the way, wavering only when he was broken serving for the second set. He quickly recovered to sweep the final eight points of the set.

Four points from victory, Kuerten played serve and volley, fell lunging for a shot and rolled onto his back. He arose covered with clay and toweled off with assistance from a ball boy before resuming play.

Kuerten smacked an ace on the next point, hit another to reach match point and put away a forehand volley to finish off Lopez, a Spaniard seeded 23rd.

As a reflection of Kuerten's steady play, he had more winners than unforced errors -- 29 to 26 -- and won 80 percent of his first-serve points.

Kuerten has been a fan favorite at Roland Garros since 1997, when he won the first of his three French Open titles as a 20-year-old unseeded player.

"I have some gray hairs," said Kuerten, now 27. "The rest is pretty much the same."

While Kuerten managed to avoid aggravating his injury, Safin's blisters kept getting worse. He said he had 11 by the end of his defeat -- six on the left hand and five on the right. He's right-handed but hits a two-fisted backhand.

The 24-year-old Russian said he has never been troubled by hand blisters before.

"Getting old, probably," he said. "I tried to take care of them, but unfortunately I couldn't concentrate and get into the match."

When asked if he considered playing with gloves, he looked at his left hand and smiled.

"Next life," he said.

"The hands I don't care about actually anymore because I'm just a little bit frustrated. It was another big opportunity for me to fight for a title. To waste the opportunity this way is a pity."

Hewitt overcome five set points in the third set against Malisse. The Belgian led 6-3 in the tiebreaker but made three consecutive errors, then sailed a backhand long on the final point.

"I just tried hanging in there and not giving him any cheap points," Hewitt said. "In the end, it paid off."

Hewitt fell behind 4-1, then broke serve four consecutive times to take control as the match evolved into a series of long baseline rallies. Malisse was bothered by back trouble early and received a massage from a trainer after the first.

Gaudio earned his first Grand Slam quarterfinal berth by converting nine of 11 break-point chances.

Andreev, an unseeded Russian, lost by committing 65 unforced errors.

"Anyways, good tournament," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press