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Russian Teen Is Hot at French Open

May 30, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ Pete Sampras is gone, Andre Agassi is gone and Jim Courier is gone. When the clay settled after the first five days of the French Open, Michael Chang was the only American man left standing.

But it’s an 18-year-old Russian qualifier who is electrifying the tournament with his power, his tenacity and his relaxed confidence.

Marat Safin, ranked 116th in the world and playing in his first Grand Slam tournament, topped his unlikely first-round win over Andre Agassi with an even unlikelier victory Friday over defending champion Gustavo Kuerten.

Safin slammed 18 aces while defeating the eighth-seeded Kuerten 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the second round to become the first qualifier _ male or female _ to beat a defending Grand Slam champion since the open era began in 1968.

Kuerten’s elimination left only one of the top nine men’s seeds _ No. 3 Marcelo Rios _ in the tournament. It is also the first time in the open era that only one of the top eight men’s seeds has advanced to the third round of a Grand Slam event.

Safin is 6-foot-4, and he takes advantage of every inch to slam aces. Then there’s his power; he hits the ball so hard he can make an opponent look as if he’s playing badminton.

He was asked Friday whether he, a qualifier, could believe he was in the third round, having beaten both Agassi and the defending champion.

``Why not?″ Safin asked.

``Everybody’s playing, more or less, the same tennis. But the head is different. It’s confidence, nothing more.″

Against Agassi, he lost the first set, won the next two, then lost the fourth.

It’s almost a law of tennis that the young upstart, no matter how well he’s playing, folds in the fifth, as if out of respect. But Safin blazed through the final set, winning 6-2. No respect for his elders.

In the Kuerten match, the players split the first four sets. In the fifth, they stayed on serve, until the key game at 4-4.

With Kuerten serving, Safin put together four brilliant points _ three huge winners and one drop shot that seemed to float _ to break Kuerten. Then he easily won the final game, with the help of two aces.

``Against Andre and Gustavo I start to hit and everything gets in,″ he said.

Kuerten, of Brazil, was ranked 66th when he startled the tennis world by winning the French Open title last year.

Only one American, 11th-seeded Chang, reached the third round _ the worst showing by U.S. men at a Grand Slam tournament in at least 30 years.

This is the first time in the open era that only one American man has made it to the third round at a Grand Slam event. Records were not available from before the open era.

The worst previous showing at Roland Garros was in 1970, when two Americans _ Arthur Ashe and Cliff Richey _ made it past the second round. Only two U.S. men made it to the third round at the Australian Open in 1974 and 1976.

``I think the French Open has been a tournament that’s been a little bit frustrating for American players, particularly on the men’s side, because the depth is so great here and so many players are in such great shape and they know the surface so well,″ said Chang, the 1989 French Open champion.

In other action, Rios, who could overtake Sampras as the No. 1 player if he makes the semifinals, reached the fourth round when Wayne Ferreira injured his right ankle in the second set.

No. 4 Patrick Rafter, the U.S. Open champion, was ousted by fellow Australian Jason Stoltenberg.

But while men’s seeds were being decimated, the top women rolled along with ease. After the first five days, only one of the top eight women has lost.

No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 3 Jana Novotna, No. 6 Monica Seles, No. 8 Venus Williams and No. 13 Anna Kournikova all had straight-sets victories.

Seles, who will face American compatriot Chanda Rubin in the fourth round, wore a ring from her late father around her neck on the court. Seles said the ring helps remind her of her father, who died of cancer two weeks ago.

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