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It's a Glorious Time of Year for Tennis in the Desert

Indian Wells: Safin is upset victim, but Rafter, Kuerten, Kafelnikov and Hingis advance in Tennis Masters Series event.

March 14, 2001|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

INDIAN WELLS — Tuesday was one of those days in the desert when it became clear, like the brilliant blue skies here, why tennis loves Charlie Pasarell.

Years ago, he started running the Indian Wells tournament that has grown into a prestigious Tennis Masters Series event, which now has Grand Slam-like fields for both men and women and has, in effect, become both a kickoff and an acid test in the sport for the year ahead.

Two years ago, Pasarell built a palace out of the desert dust, and now they come--players and fans alike. And almost always, as was the case Tuesday, good things happen for the sport when they do.

First, Patrick Rafter won a match, adding his tremendous box-office appeal to that of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who won first-round matches Monday. With Rafter on board, you could almost hear the phones ringing in Pasarell's ticket offices.

Rafter's impressive 6-3, 6-2 win over England's hard-serving Greg Rusedski followed the quick advance of another rising attraction, No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil. Kuerten dusted off Cecil Mamiit, a young Los Angeles player who is still not quite ready for prime time, 6-2, 6-3.

Kuerten, despite some typical tennis-player crabbing about having to play at the early hour of 10 a.m., looked sharp enough to go a few more rounds and put a few more people in the seats as the week continues.

Then Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a former No. 1 player, took out Chilean Marcelo Rios, also a former No. 1, and that had to make everybody other than Rios' immediate family happy, since the surly left-hander is about as popular as foot faults, both in the locker room and the stands. Kafelnikov, seeded seventh and coached by the desert's own Larry Stefanki, won, 6-4, 7-5.

Even the demise of second-seeded Marat Safin of Russia, a 7-5, 7-5 victim of Thomas Johansson of Sweden, ended up being something of a positive. Safin, who played the match of his life last September when he beat Sampras in the U.S. Open final, injured his back in a semifinal against Johansson in Dubai in late February. He hung on to win that match, but then defaulted halfway through the final.

Tuesday, his back was still hurting badly enough that he served about as hard as a club player on a Thursday night doubles ladder. That meant he was taking on the tough Swede minus a main weapon. Which was, in this day and age of tanking and sitting out matches because of hangnails, commendable.

"You have to try," Safin said. "Why not? I tried. I mean, I didn't lose, 6-love, 6-love. I tried. I even had opportunities. I was a break up in the first set, then at 4-all in the second, 15-40."

Safin said he figured it was destiny when, with Johansson serving at 5-5 in the second set, he chased down a drop shot and got it to skim over the net and land in the court before it bounced wide of the post. Johansson somehow got to it and, two full strides on Safin's side of the net and so far right of the post that he almost trampled the kneeling ball kid, tapped it into the court for a winner. Perfectly legal, and devastating for Safin.

"That's when I knew it wasn't my day," he said.

The day also yielded surprising success for two new American players, a much-discussed need as Sampras and Agassi near retirement.

Mardy Fish, a 19-year-old from Vero Beach, Fla., knocked out 15th-seeded Australian veteran Mark Philippoussis, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-4, and Taylor Dent, also 19, took out South African veteran Wayne Ferreira, 6-3, 6-0. Jan-Michael Gambill, a slightly older American hope at 23, who has won two ATP titles and reached the final at Los Angeles last year, also advanced, taking out 14th-seeded Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty, 6-4, 6-3.

The women had a light day, with only two quarterfinals scheduled. Kim Clijsters of Belgium routed Elena Bovina of Russia, 6-2, 6-2, and, in a night match, top-seeded Martina Hingis beat Silvia Farina Elia of Italy, 6-0, 6-1.

Rafter, who had a streak of five service games in which he allowed Rusedski only one point, conceded he had played very well, then noted the quality of the event.

"If you look at the field, I wouldn't put my name on anyone," he said. "It's just too tough here. Everyone's here. Everyone wants to win. This is one of the big ones. There are 32 guys out there that can win this tournament, and I'm one of them."

Outside, the temperature hovered around 75. A few wispy clouds drifted by. The lines at the ticket windows grew. And Pasarell wandered around, smiling a lot.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Featured Matches

10 a.m.

* Stadium court: Pete Sampras vs. Fabrice Santoro; Serena Williams vs. Lindsay Davenport; Elena Dementieva vs. Venus Williams.

6 p.m.

* Stadium court: Tommy Haas vs. Andre Agassi; Fernando Vicente vs. Jan-Michael Gambill.

10 a.m.

* Stadium 2: Cedric Pioline vs. Tim Henman; Gustavo Kuerten vs. Taylor Dent; Patrick Rafter vs. Arnaud Di Pasquale.

10 a.m.

* Stadium 3: Carlos Moya vs. Sebastien Grosjean; Lleyton Hewitt vs. Paradorn Srichaphan; Mardy Fish vs. Nicolas Kiefer.

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