Laid-back Kuerten dispatches No. 2 Safin


NEW YORK - The U.S. Open. Such serious business. So serious Gustavo Kuerten warmed up by going to the WNBA Finals at Madison Square Garden, settling into a courtside seat with an oversized bag of popcorn and cheering for the New York Liberty the night before his big, second-round match with No. 2 seed Marat Safin.

"Oh, very nice," he said of the basketball game. "They always try to intimidate each other. I liked it very much. I was wishing the last seconds would have decided for New York, but L.A. pushed too hard."

It must have been exactly what the three-time French Open champion needed, for on a cold day, with dark clouds hanging overhead, Kuerten, decked out in his bright orange shirt and blue shorts, turned in a focused, daunting performance to oust Safin, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

It was a battle of titans. Both men are former world No. 1 players. Both have won Grand Slam tournaments - Safin's came here in 2000.

Kuerten had won their previous two meetings, but Safin held a 3-2 edge in their five previous meetings, determined by five-set matches three times and twice by three-setters that included two tiebreakers in each before a winner was determined.

By comparison, yesterday's match that saw Safin broken once in each set was a romp.

"Guga always serves good," said Safin. "But today, he was incredible. Much, much better than before. When you see a guy not returning a serve - in this case it was me not returning - then you know the other guy is serving very well and when that guy sees his serve not coming back, his confidence just grows. He was too good for me today.

"But, let's see how he holds up. I mean, he played a great match today and I think he's hungry. But let's see if he can play this way during all the two weeks. You never know how your body will react coming back from injury."

Kuerten underwent hip surgery in February and is in the midst of a comeback. He missed two months before coming back at the end of April for two tournaments leading up the French Open, where he made it to the round of 16.

His most impressive match, however, came in a quarterfinal meeting with Andre Agassi in Los Angeles in mid-July, a match he lost in three difficult sets, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4.

It might have been the beginning of a strong run. Instead, he found himself retiring in his first-round match in the Canadian Open the next week and lost to Tim Henman in the opening round in Cincinnati on Aug. 5.

That was the last time he was seen until he walked on court here this week for his first-round match with Julien Boutter of France, a match he won, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1, 6-0.

"For me," said Kuerten, "this is the happiest day for me this year. I was more worried about my first-round match than this match with Marat. Boutter, I had never beaten. Against Marat, I had nothing to lose."

When Kuerten won the toss for his match with Safin, he chose to receive serve. "I am just a very nice guy. I always let the other person go first," he said laughing. But it may not have been so nice. On this cold, windy day, it took a little while to warm up. By that time, Kuerten had cracked a well-paced backhand down the line for a winner that gave him a break in the first game of the first set that he made stand up for a first-set victory.

All of which stoked Kuerten's sunny disposition to the point of playfulness. When he was asked about his latest hairstyle - a short, curly, reddish cut - he almost giggled when asked if it was natural.

"Right now, I'm not even me," he said. "I don't know. It changes color every day. It matches my shirt, so it's good. I don't know how it happens. I wake up and it goes red, yellow, whatever. It's OK, I don't mind."

Kuerten smiled. This is how it is when you're winning at a time when no one really expected you to.

NOTES: The Open set a single-day attendance record of 32,671. ... No. 4 seed Lindsay Davenport advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Marion Bartoli. ... On the men's side, No. 3 Tommy Haas, No. 5 Tim Henman, No. 9 Pete Sampras and No. 11 Andy Roddick all gained. ... Martina Navratilova teamed with Leander Paes to beat defending mixed doubles champions Rennae Stubbs and Todd Woodbridge, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

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