PARIS -- Henri Leconte, who calls it a miracle that he is still
playing tennis, got a firm grip on his racket yesterday and suddenly it turned into Excalibur: Goodbye, fourth seed Michael Stich, last year's French Open semifinalist and defending Wimbledon champion.
Andrei Cherkasov, whose first-round defeat of John McEnroe in Paris last year gave warning that this Muscovite is a most comfortable giant-killer, spent a full three sets in the elusive zone that packs a terminator's punch into every stroke: Goodbye, second seed Stefan Edberg, the defending U.S. Open champion, in straight sets.
Nicklas Kulti, who commenced his role as spoiler in the opening round by making certain this French Open would be McEnroe's last, went toe-to-toe in a five-set duel with the ultimate marathon man in the third round: Goodbye, fifth seed Michael Chang, the surprise 1989 French Open champion.
For the space of this sunny day, the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium seemed transformed to coals, and Stich, Edberg and Chang found themselves raked over them unmercifully by three underdogs.
The Chang upset required 4 hours, 39 minutes, and by day's end, the French Open had lost three of its top five men's seeds.
In all, the already ravaged bottom half of the draw lost five more seeded players, leaving seventh seed Petr Korda to take a solo stand there.
"I have no idea who's going to come out of there," Chang said after falling to 94th-ranked Kulti, 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6, on Court 1, where Swedish fans with painted faces chanted their sentiments throughout the contest.
It was the fourth straight year that Chang got stuck in a five-setter in Paris with a Swede, and the first time he failed to solve the problem; the defeat dropped his five-set record at the tournament to 11-4.
"He was serving bombs," Chang said. "All through the match it looked like he was just smashing the ball and saying, 'Go in,' and it obeyed him. You try to run it down, but basically you just have to take your hat off to him."
Chang saved eight match points in the final set before double-faulting to allow Kulti a ninth. The 20-year-old American then ended the epic by dumping a desperate forehand volley into the net.
Volleys were the leitmotif in Leconte's ambush of Stich.
The fiery Leconte gave the proceedings, and the hopes of the home country, a jump start by transcending his No. 200 ranking and jumping all over the sullen Stich at high noon.
With his barometer set for one-way play, Leconte charged the net before the like-minded Stich could, and, by winning that race, he put himself in prime position to take control.
The 10 break points Stich failed to convert in the first set rose up like a smoke signal of surrender that Leconte was only too happy to accept with alacrity as he punched out a 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Leconte, who stymied the United States in the 1991 Davis Cup championship in nearby Lyon, resuscitated himself once again, this time at Stich's expense.
"I haven't played such a good match since the final at Lyon; I never thought I could play like that again," said Leconte, who recovered from his third bout of back surgery last September.
Leconte played his usual brand of exclamatory tennis, hurling left-handed darts in Stich's direction, wearing clay on his back and his heart on his sleeve.
"When you are playing somebody that's better than you are, you never think about it, you just go for it," said Leconte, 28, who had considered skipping this event because he didn't trust himself to come close to matching his best showing in 11 previous visits -- runner-up to Mats Wilander in 1988.
"That was the thing I was afraid of, that he'd just play risky and if he starts to play well and make most of his shots, it's tough to answer," said Stich, who left immediately to make the Wimbledon transition.
Edberg, another serve-and-volley specialist who'll have to regroup on grass, played a relatively listless match against the hard-hitting Cherkasov and paid for it with a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) loss.
Edberg said he felt victimized by circumstance throughout the match, but never so much as when umpire David Littlefield overruled a call on Cherkasov's serve in the ninth point of the third-set tiebreaker.
The serve became an ace, Cherkasov assumed a 6-3 lead, and the match ended two points later when Edberg crashed a backhand volley into the net.
"You feel like you want to sink through the ground," was Edberg's response to the overrule. And of the overall match, the normally placid Swede had a sharp opinion. "I don't want to remember anything," he said.
* In the second round of women's doubles, Elise Burgin of Pikesville, Md., and Mariaan de Swardt of South Africa were beaten, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, by the fifth-seeded team of Katrina Adams of Chicago and Manon Bollegraf of the Netherlands.