PARIS - It could finally be Martina Hingis' year at the French Open. It could again be Gustavo Kuerten's or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario's; could even be Mary Pierce's. But what is certain after an overstuffed afternoon of quarterfinal action yesterday is that it will not be an American's.
For the first time in 33 years, no U.S. man or woman will take part in the semifinals of the world's premier clay-court tournament. Monica Seles, Venus Williams and Chanda Rubin were all beaten yesterday, and the crushed red brick at Roland Garros has been left to the Spanish, the Swiss, the Brazilians and, technically speaking at least, the French.
Pierce spends a great deal more time these days with her baseball-playing boyfriend, Roberto Alomar, in Cleveland or in her house in Florida than she does in France, the country she began representing in her teens. But despite the ambivalence of the Paris crowd toward her in recent years and despite her increasing need to search for her words in the language of Voltaire and Yannick Noah, she continues to catch the long flight across the Atlantic to play at home.
On a court named for the greatest French women's player of all time (Suzanne Lenglen), she earned one of the most significant victories of her career, defeating Monica Seles, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. The sixth-seeded Pierce will now face top-seeded Martina Hingis in the semifinals. Hingis was too versatile and too poised for the unseeded Rubin in their quarterfinal, winning, 6-1, 6-3. The Swiss is now two victories from the only Grand Slam title she is missing and clearly wary, after last year's public relations disaster against Steffi Graf in the final, about appearing too eager.
"I need oxygen probably to survive, but not the French Open," she said.
Tomorrow's other semifinal will be an all-Spanish affair between Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez, the two 28-year-old veterans. Although they were expected to be washed away by the new wave of talent, both have proved surprisingly resistant to erosion.
Sanchez-Vicario, seeded eighth, proved too consistent and resourceful down the stretch yesterday for Williams, the No. 4 seed from the United States, changing speeds and tactics regularly in her 6-0, 1-6, 6-2 victory. The fifth-seeded Martinez later shrugged off a set point in the opening set before eliminating yet another Spaniard, the 17-year-old qualifier Marta Marrero, 7-6 (5), 6-1.
The last time Williams and Sanchez-Vicario met on clay was last year in Hamburg, Germany. Williams won, 6-1, 6-3, and had beaten her four times in a row in all, but after a four-month layoff because of tendinitis in her wrists, her level has slipped considerably.
Williams is not as consistent from the baseline and not as confident a returner on big points. She also does not seem quite as fit - it's tough to look intimidating when you're gasping for air - and is not serving as effectively. Watching her serve at the moment is akin to watching a Ferrari with a two-stroke engine. It looks impressive until it tries to accelerate, and Williams finished with just two service winners to the much smaller Sanchez-Vicario's six.
"I think Arantxa's lifted up her level a lot, but then it's also in conjunction with the level of my game not being anywhere near normal in my opinion," Williams said.
Kuerten, the skinny Brazilian with the muscular groundstrokes, had a great year here in 1997 emerging from obscurity in a big hurry to win. He moved one step closer to his second title by defeating another former champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the quarterfinals in five draining and thoroughly diverting sets, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
His task will not necessarily be easier in the semifinals against 20-year-old Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, who eliminated his more experienced, more expansive but not quite as complete countryman Alex Corretja by the confidence-boosting score of 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. A former runner-up in the boys' event at Roland Garros, this is Ferrero's first year in the main draw.