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Federer Gets Left in the Dust

Fifth-seeded Swiss learns a hard lesson about clay-court tennis, losing in first round of French Open. Agassi, Blake, Serena win.

May 27, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The red clay of Stade Roland Garros is demanding.

It requires that a tennis player be strong and healthy, fit and clever, confident with the ground strokes but brave enough to sneak forward occasionally for a volley. Most of all, it requires patience from the men and women who want to win the French Open.

Andre Agassi needed years to get over his hard-headedness. It took losses in the final to Andres Gomez and Jim Courier and years of watching his furious forehands become something for the fans to duck from, of having his mind crumble and his stubborn need to hit only harder instead of smarter be his enemy before Agassi finally earned his only French Open title four years ago.

As Agassi walked off Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday after Round 1 of his 15th French Open, the red clay was splattered on the back of his shorts and shirt and even his shaved head. He needed only 1 hour 35 minutes to beat young Karol Beck of Slovakia, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, but still the clay tempted the No. 2 seeded player's need for a big blast. If only for a moment.

Even as a 33-year-old husband and father, even as the owner of eight Grand Slam titles, Agassi can still forget that biggest of red clay requirements.

Holding triple set point, Agassi served five consecutive faults. Two double faults and a second serve turned into a Beck winner brought Agassi back to deuce. He shook his head, knocked the clay from his shoes with his racket and settled down to hit winning ground strokes. No need for the aces. Agassi remembered.

Maybe someday Roger Federer will learn.

Federer is a pleasing shot-maker. His one-handed backhand is lethal tennis when struck with savage quickness. His drop shots land with nasty spin, unpredictable at the finish. Federer is quick and clever and as his raw talent unfolds during a match, he is both breathtaking and maddening.

Federer, it seems, can make any play in a match. He can also mis-hit, mistime, and mostly misappropriate his extravagant talent. A rush to victory too often turns into a dispiriting loss. He has not learned that Roland Garros demands patience.

Widely considered the most talented player on the tour, Federer, a 21-year-old from Switzerland, was seeded fifth and expected to challenge for this title. Instead, he was a first-round loser for the second year in a row. This time it was Luis Horna, a French Open rookie from Peru, who sent Federer off with a 7-6 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (3) beating.

And by the end, after Federer gradually seemed to lose interest, some of the crowd booed him. Paying fans want an honest effort, preferring sweat instead of surrender. When he botched an easy overhead to give away the first set, the fight left Federer.

"It was disappointing to lose the first set," Federer said. There was a bare shrug of his shoulders and no hint of emotion in his voice.

James Blake, a thoughtful American and an admirer of Agassi, has begun to understand the red clay. "I am learning every match and I believe I can win here," Blake said after his 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (3) win over Newport Beach's Taylor Dent. Dent, playing in his first French Open, is far from giving Roland Garros what it asks.

Defending women's champion Serena Williams has learned what Roland Garros demands.

After Williams split the first four games against German veteran Barbara Rittner, she stampeded through the rest of the match and posted a statement-making 6-2, 6-1 win.

If the French crowd was lukewarm at first, remembering Williams' attempt at humor earlier this year when she put on a fake French accent and commented that the French preferred designing clothes to fighting wars, it was appreciative at the end of the 53-minute match.

"I think players generally believe I'm the player to beat in any tournament, especially the Slams, because I kick it up to a new level physically and mentally," Williams said. "This is what I play tennis for, to be remembered."

Federer's loss was the biggest upset of the day but not the only one.

It was no surprise, though, when 10th-seeded Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, a big hitter more comfortable on harder surfaces, was a 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 7-5 loser to Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia. It was a bit more of a surprise when Spain's Alex Corretja, seeded 16th and a two-time French Open runner-up, was knocked out by countryman Galo Blanco, 5-7, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5.

In the women's competition, the upsets were of the minor variety -- France's Emilie Loit took advantage of an enthusiastic crowd to knock out No. 29 Elena Likhovtseva of Russia, 6-3, 6-2, and No. 27 Alexandra Stevenson, whose biggest tennis moment came on the fast Wimbledon grass, lost to Madagascar's Dally Randriantefy, 6-3, 6-3.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

French Open Glance

*--* Highlights from Day 1 of the French Open on Monday: * Men's seeded winners: No. 2 Andre Agassi, No. 4 Carlos Moya, No. 7 Guillermo Coria, No. 11 Rainer Schuettler, No. 13 Jiri Novak * Men's seeded losers: No. 5 Roger Federer, No. 10 Paradorn Srichaphan, No. 16 Alex Corretja * Women's seeded winners: No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 4 Justine Henin-Hardenne, No. 5 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 8 Chanda Rubin * Women's seeded losers: No. 27 Alexandra Stevenson, No. 29 Elena Likhovtseva * Statistic of the day: 29 -- consecutive wins for Serena Williams in major tournament matches * Quote of the day: "It's amazing the lengths she'll go to not to play." -- Andre Agassi, who scrapped plans to play mixed doubles with wife Steffi Graf because she's pregnant

*--*

-- Associated Press

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