PARIS -- Sometimes, Steffi Graf looked as puzzled as the crowd at Stade Roland Garros. Time after time, her usually stunning slice backhand dipped into the net and her steady forehand went long.
Time after time, she stuck her tongue into her cheek and made it obvious that she could not believe what was happening to her any more than the French can believe what is happening in their classic tennis tournament.
"It was a terrible match," said Graf, the second seed and two-time defending women's champion, after losing her French Open quarterfinal to Amanda Coetzer, 6-1, 6-4. "I just don't seem to have any self-confidence. I could not find the patience and the belief in my shots."
Graf's loss, combined with No. 3 seed Monica Seles' 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory over Mary Joe Fernandez yesterday, dropped Graf to third in the world, the first time she has been ranked lower than No. 2 since March 1, 1987.
On Court Central, Le Malediction de la Terre Battue continued for the men, as well.
This time, the Curse of the Red Clay claimed defending men's champion and third seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who fell to the amazing kid from Brazil, Gustavo Kuerten. Kuerten, the 20-year-old who knocked off No. 5-ranked Thomas Muster and No. 20 Andrei Medvedev in back-to-back five-setters, went the distance again, taking this one, 6-2, 5-7, 2-6, 6-0, 6-4.
"I think what you are seeing here is that the level of tennis is very, very good," said Kafelnikov. "I know people say tennis is down, but that is because, in America, basketball and football and golf are making individual stars. In Europe, there are no big individual names, and overall in tennis, the players outside the top 100 can be top 10. I think that is all that you see."
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps what is going on here is simple parity -- something pro and college leagues in the United States have been trying to achieve for years. If Gustavo Kuerten wereCoppin State and going to the Final Four and Amanda Coetzer were the Chicago Cubs and about to appear in the World Series, the enthusiasm would be boundless.
As it is, Kuerten is a charming Brazilian whom most casual tennis watchers had never heard of before this week. And Coetzer is a respected supporting cast member, one not expected to bump off the leading ladies and claim center stage for herself.
But Graf, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles, lacked the confidence to play the starring role.
"I wish I knew why it happens," said Graf, who had 64 unforced errors. "It's just the state I'm in at the moment. I know I need self-confidence when I go out there against Amanda. I know she's not going to make mistakes. I know it's me who has to do the points, either win or lose."
Yesterday was the first day that the women's draw felt a major upset punch. Going into the quarterfinals, No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 2 Graf and No. 3 Seles were still here.
Two of the three remain to play in tomorrow's semifinals.
Hingis advanced to a match against Seles with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over No. 6 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Graf, meanwhile, has left her half of the semis to No. 11 Coetzer and No. 9 Iva Majoli. Majoli moved on with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 victory over Ruxandra Dragomir.
When Coetzer beat Graf yesterday, it was for the third time this year, and the loss was the first for Graf in the French quarterfinals since 1986.
In retrospect, Graf's loss wasn't a big upset. In 1995, Coetzer stopped Graf's 32-match winning streak in a third-set tiebreaker in Toronto. Three weeks ago, she handed Graf the worst loss of her career, 6-0, 6-1, at the German Open.
Coetzer has won 11 of their 14 career meetings.
Curiously enough in this curious tournament, with just two matches to play, Graf still doesn't say Coetzer can win this title.
"You know, she's very steady off the baseline, she doesn't make mistakes and she is playing with a lot of confidence," Graf said. "But probably not. For her to win, I think it is going to be very difficult."
Yesterday, it wasn't that difficult. Graf said she had a terrific morning practice in which every shot hit the corners.
"But I was nervous starting the match, making a lot of mistakes, feeling very uncomfortable, unsure of my shots," Graf said. "And the rain delay didn't help at all. I mean, even during the break, I did not find a positive attitude. Even though it was closer at the end I don't seem to get positive at all."
After beating Graf, Coetzer put on a T-shirt that said, "Power is nothing -- without control."
"You could see she was nervous," said Coetzer. "And I can relate to that. She hasn't played as much as I think she would have liked [due to injury], and she's lost to me a couple times. If I was in her position, I wouldn't have that much confidence, either."
Men's singles, quarterfinals
Filip Dewulf, Belgium, def. Magnus Norman, Sweden, 6-2, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 6-3. Gustavo Kuerten, Brazil, def. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3), Russia, 6-2, 5-7, 2-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Women's singles, quarterfinals
Iva Majoli (9), Croatia, def. Ruxandra Dragomir, Romania, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2. Amanda Coetzer (11), South Africa, def. Steffi Graf (2), Germany, 6-1, 6-4. Monica Seles (3), Sarasota, Fla., def. Mary Joe Fernandez (12), Key Biscayne, Fla., 3-6, 6-2, 7-5. Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (6), Spain, 6-2, 6-2.
Pub Date: 6/04/97