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Ant-aided Rafter adds semi berth to his hill Taught on Antbed surface, Aussie serves clay surprise; French Open

PARIS — PARIS -- Australian Patrick Rafter has dreamed of being in a Grand Slam semifinal -- just not this one.

"The French Open, definitely not in the first two," he said, after serve-and-volleying his way to tomorrow's semifinals with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 victory over Spaniard Galo Blanco, the 111th-ranked player in the world.

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"I think the first two were Wimbledon and the Australian Open," Rafter said. "The Australian Open, obviously, because it's home. Wimbledon, because it's regarded as where tennis started. Never have I ever thought of reaching this far [into] the French Open. It's just amazing."

Rafter's victory and Sergi Bruguera's 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over Hicham Arazi completed the men's semifinals in this upset-prone Open.

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Qualifier Filip Dewulf will go against the part-time water skier from Brazil, Gustavo Kuerten, tomorrow, and Rafter will face his old nemesis Bruguera, the No. 16 seed and the only seed left here. Bruguera has beaten Rafter here twice before, but this time is himself a surprise semifinalist, given his last title was in July 1994.

The women's semifinals will be played today and two of those four finalists are equally unexpected. No. 1 seed Martina Hingis will face No. 3 Monica Seles in one match, and No. 11 Amanda Coetzer will try to continue her startling run against No. 9 Iva Majoli.

"What a surprise," said Rafter of the men's final four. "Who would ever have thought these three players -- me and Kuerten and Dewulf -- would be in the semifinals? The chances are a billion to one."

Clay is not exactly the favorite surface of Australian tennis players. Rafter grew up playing on a lot of hard courts, on a little grass and on something called Antbed.

"The ants make these big, tall mounds and then the mounds are taken and crushed and they make courts out of it," Rafter said, smiling. "It's very slippery. You slide a lot. It's the closest thing to clay we have back in Queensland."

In retrospect, Rafter's career has been a lot like the making of an Antbed court: big, crushed and rebuilt. "My attitude now is whatever happens, happens," said Rafter, 24. "I just take it as it comes."

He came to the attention of the men's pro tour in 1993, when at 21 he was named Newcomer of the Year. He was the first Australian since Wimbledon champion Pat Cash to make an impact. He had a beautiful serve-and-volley game, a handsome face and a quick smile. He was everything the tennis tour seemed to need.

In 1994, he made it to the Round of 16 here. But Bruguera ended that run and went on to his second French title.

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By the end of the year, Rafter was No. 21 in the world, but he already was beginning to discover that he couldn't handle the expectations. By the time he made it to a fourth-round match against Andre Agassi at the Australian Open in 1995, his celebrity was as big as any rock star's. But Rafter's game was falling apart and Agassi scrubbed the court with him.

Then came a string of chronic wrist and ankle injuries and a fall out of the Top 50.

"I felt so much pressure back then," Rafter said here easily. "I didn't have any maturity. It's different now, being out on the road, knowing what to do and when to do it."

And the injuries helped too by giving him a chance to be away from the game and assess what he had and what he wanted.

"Sometimes, you just want to stop after a while because it's too tiring," he said. "But then, when you're away, you really do miss it. It makes you a bit more eager."

He came into the French Open ranked No. 25. Today, he is inside the Top 20. By the time he leaves he could be as high as No. 11.

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An amazing accomplishment for an Australian playing a traditional serve-and-volley game, which hasn't won here since Frenchman Yannick Noah in 1983.

Hasn't anyone told Rafter he can't win on red clay with a serve-and-volley game?

"No, no one has ever said that," Rafter said. "They said, 'If the sun shines, you've got a good chance.' "

Men singles, quarterfinals

Patrick Rafter, Australia, def. Galo Blanco, Spain, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3; Sergi Bruguera (16), Spain, def. Hicham Arazi, Morocco, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Doubles, quarterfinals

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Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia, and Daniel Vacek (4), Czech Republic, def. Karsten Braasch and Jens Knippschild, Germany, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3.

.' Women's doubles, quarterfinals

Mary Joe Fernandez and Lisa Raymond (5) def. Larisa Neiland and Helena Sukova (4), 6-2, 6-3; Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva (1), def. Nicole Arendt and Manon Bollegraf (6), 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 6-3; Martina Hingis and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (3) def. Yayuk Basuki and Caroline Vis (7), 7-6 (7-3), 7-5; Alexandra Fusai and Nathalie Tauziat (8), def. Conchita Martinez and Patricia Tarabini (10), 6-2, 6-4.

Pub Date: 6/05/97


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