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Four-man Spanish armada sails into quarters in Paris


PARIS - They are El Gran Cuatro of the French Open: Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Costa and, at the end of one of the great days for Spanish tennis, 21-year-old Tommy Robredo, who used his speed and irrepressible inside-out forehand to score the greatest victory of his young career.

All are into the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

When Robredo's tenuous, low-struck volley from a few feet in front of the net blooped down on the baseline tape to end this two-hour and 46-minute classic late yesterday afternoon, Robredo dropped to his knees bearing a broad grin and leaned back so far he was reclining on his heels.

His 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 upset of three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten sent him into the quarterfinals with his three countrymen, who joined No. 2 Andre Agassi, No. 7 Guillermo Coria of Argentina, No. 19 Fernando Gonzalez of Chile and unseeded Marty Verkerk of the Netherlands.

"It's very tough to describe, no," said Robredo, still hyper 15 minutes after his victory. "I'm coming here to Roland Garros, beating Lleyton Hewitt two days ago, now playing Guga. I was very nervous at the start of the match."

Moya, the No. 4 seed, reached the quarters on Sunday by defeating No. 13 Jiri Novak. Yesterday, with the morning rain finally clearing off at noon, third-seeded Ferrero raced through Felix Mantilla, another Spaniard, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, and Costa defeated Arnaud Clement, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5.

Coria, whose Sunday match was suspended by darkness, lost the fourth set on the restart, but stabilized for a 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win over Mariano Zabaleta. Gonzalez reached the final eight by easily beating Jarkko Nieminen, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

The Spaniards recorded a bit of history yesterday - the first time in 34 years as many as four players from the same country reached the quarters of the men's French Open. Australia had fielded five in 1969.

Kuerten came to Paris with his game not quite in tune and hoped to find the right rhythm in the first week to become only the second player, with Bjorn Borg, to win as many as four titles here.

Although he looked vulnerable at times in his third-round win over Gaston Gaudio, he seemed to have found the grit he needed to win the crucial points. There were strong signs that he could win here again this fortnight.

But Robredo's speed and risky shot-making made the difference in this match. He did not come to play conservative tennis and dozens of times went well wide of the backhand doubles sideline to hit inside-out forehands, leaving his forehand side wide-open.

Kuerten, however, seldom could take advantage. His return shots were more down the middle than into the open court and Robredo, with his swift legs, had no trouble covering for the next shot.

He also continually hurt Kuerten by freezing him on the baseline as he wound up for an inside-outer before striking a dangerous but effective drop shot that came down just beyond the net at Kuerten's backhand sideline. Robredo scored four points in the third-set tiebreak off droppers and three more in the final game of the match.

"I had an easy shot to make 4-love and by losing that game, he was coming back to win the first set," Kuerten said. "I think really that [changed] around the match a lot. He got me with some variations on his game, with a drop shot and then running around to the forehand. I was guessing what he was doing."

Robredo needed six set points to put away the third, five coming with Kuerten serving at 4-5. He finally turned Kuerten under in the tiebreaker with a scorching forehand down the line, following it forward to block an easy forehand volley into the open court.

If Robredo played the most exciting match of the day, Ferrero played the most immaculate. He faced only four break points, defended three, converted 86 percent of his first serves and allowed Mantilla to hit only three ground-stroke winners.

He'll next play Gonzalez, who has beaten him in their only two matchups - though both were on hard courts. "I know I have great tennis in me," Gonzalez said after thrashing No. 30 Nieminen. "But it's not so much speaking that matters. It's what you're to do on the court."

Robredo will play Costa, which means at least one Spaniard will make the semis.

Charles Bricker is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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