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FRENCH OPEN NOTES

Serve-and-Volleyer Hopes to Stand Tall

June 06, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Martin Verkerk had never won a match at a Grand Slam tournament.

Until this one.

Verkerk, a 6-foot-3, 24-year-old pro from the Netherlands, stands as the only unseeded player left in the French Open men's draw. He is the tallest player left. He is the biggest server, the best volleyer. He is the most demonstrative, having taken to falling on his back onto the clay after each upset, most recently when he knocked out 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya.

Today, Verkerk will play the shortest man left in the draw, seventh-seeded Guillermo Coria, who is 5-9, in one semifinal. In the other, defending champion and ninth-seeded Albert Costa, who has already played four five-set matches here, will meet third-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in a rematch of the 2002 final.

Verkerk hit 27 aces in his quarterfinal upset of Moya. Against Coria, who has an 11-match clay-court win streak, also has never been this far in a Grand Slam tournament and knocked out second-seeded Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals, Verkerk said he must do more of the same.

"I know how to play against Coria," Verkerk said. "Same, actually, as I played against Moya. I play serve-volley and that's all about practice. A year ago I couldn't volley. Now I make volleys to go to the semifinals."

Until now, Verkerk had counted a first-round, center-court night match against Andy Roddick at the 2002 U.S. Open as his tennis highlight. "That's where I am most happy," Verkerk said. "I made so much progress in a year."

Only three other men -- Nicolas Lapentti at the 1999 Australian Open, Todd Martin at Wimbledon in 1994 and Steve Denton at the 1981 Australian Open -- have played as many as four five-set matches in a Grand Slam event. And none went on to win the tournament.

"What I have discovered," the 27-year-old Costa said, "is that I have greater mental strength, possibly because I have won this before. I'm very motivated and I want to win again. Mentally and physically I've shown great strength."

Ferrero, 22, thinks his Spanish countryman might not have a lot of stamina left. "Physically, I'm not sure he will be that fresh," Ferrero said, "because after playing so many sets, nobody can be fresh."

*

The U.S. presence in men's and women's singles is gone, but Brian Baker, an 18-year-old from Nashville, upset top-seeded Marko Baghdatis of Cypress, 6-4, 7-5, in the boys' singles quarterfinals.

The sixth-seeded Baker, who has a scholarship offer from Florida but probably will turn pro, is the first American to make it to the boys' singles semifinals since David Witt in 1991. In today's semifinals, Baker will face a hostile crowd and fourth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.

Baker, who has a nine-match winning streak on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit, beat Tsonga in their only previous meeting, on grass, last summer.

John McEnroe was the last U.S. boy to win the championship here, in 1977. Jonathan Palmer reached the final in 1989.

*

Advancing to the men's doubles final were Mike and Bob Bryan of Camarillo. The third-seeded Bryan brothers defeated fifth-seeded Leander Paes of India and David Rikl of the Czech Republic, 6-4, 6-3. In the final they will play 11th-seeded Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands and Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia.

This will be the first Grand Slam final for the Bryans. "We're definitely going to have nerves," Bob Bryan said. "We're going to stay in the present," Mike Bryan said, "and not think about getting the hardware."

Mike Bryan and his partner, Lisa Raymond, will play in the mixed doubles final today against Elena Likhovtseva of Russia and Mahesh Bhupathi of India. Chanda Rubin and Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia will play Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain and Paola Suarez of Argentina in a women's doubles semifinal.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Men's Semifinals

*--* * Today, 7 a.m., Ch. 4; 10 a.m., ESPN * Juan Carlos Ferrero (3), Spain, vs. Albert Costa (9), Spain * Martin Verkerk, Netherlands, vs. Guillermo Coria (7), Argentina * Head-to-head: Costa leads Ferrero, 3-2; Verkerk and Coria have never played * Men's final: Sunday, 6 a.m., Ch. 4

*--*

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