Tennis: Safin's stay in Spain pays off against Kuerten

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IF Pete Sampras really is desperate to win the French Open title one day, he should perhaps swallow his pride and go into spring training with the Spanish clay-court specialists.

The experience appears to have worked wonders for Marat Safin, a bold young Russian who has been based in Valencia for the past four years learning his trade. Yesterday he created history, becoming the first qualifer to defeat a men's Grand Slam singles champion in the Open era.

Safin out-lasted the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten in the second round, 3- 6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. In the opening round the 18-year-old Muscovite, ranked No 116 in the world, eliminated Andre Agassi in five sets.

Kuerten, the No 8 seed, joined Sampras, Petr Korda, Greg Rusedski, Pat Rafter, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Jonas Bjorkman out of the tournament, leaving Marcelo Rios (No 3) as the only seed from the top eight to survive to the last 32. It is the first time this has happened at a Grand Slam in the Open era.

A year ago, Kuerten surprised everybody by becoming only the second unseeded player to win the French title in the open era (Mats Wilander, in 1982, was the other). The prospects of a third emerging have increased day by day as the reigning Grand Slam champions have disappeared, Korda, followed by Sampras, followed yesterday by Kuerten and Rafter, who was defeated by his Australian compatriot Jason Stoltenberg, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Rios remains the firm favourite to improve upon his disappointing performance in the Australian Open final in January. The Chilean, who is only two wins away from overtaking Sampras again as the world No1, advanced to a fourth-round match against Spain's Albert Costa yesterday when Wayne Ferreira retired hurt after twisting his right ankle when Rios was leading 6-1, 3-3.

Michael Chang, the No 11 seed and the only American left in the draw, reached the third round after his Dutch opponent, John van Lottum, retired because of an injury to his buttocks. Chang led, 7-5, 6-3, 3-0.

Safin's progress has caused quite a stir, not least because of his first name. Did he know anything about Jean-Paul Marat, the French revolutionary who wrote Friend of the People and was stabbed to death in his bath by a royalist, Charlotte Corday?

"Yes, yes, yes.''

And was he in any way, shape or form named after him?

"No, my name is Arabian.''

This particular Marat is a friend of Anna Kournikova, who was also in fine form yesterday, defeating Sweden's Asa Carlsson, 6-0, 6-0, to advance to the fourth round of the women's singles.

"I have known Marat since we were like five years old, because we're from the same club in Moscow," Kournikova said. "We went to America the first time with a group together, it was like 15 kids. I know him very well. We are almost the same age. You know he's been practising in Spain. He was always a great player. I practised with him in Russia many times. I think he's got a great game. It probably helped him a lot that he's practised in Spain, not in Russia. It's very difficult conditions practising in Russia.''

Inevitably, Safin was asked if he would like to play on the lawns of Wimbledon. "Yes," he said, "I don't think I have enough time to practise on grass. I'll go directly to the Wimbledon "qualies'' after Split, where I am playing a Challenger. I have never played on grass, so I will take 15 rackets to break.''

Speaking of which, Agassi, having come to terms with his defeat by Safin here in Paris, has asked for a wild card to be saved for him for the Stella Artois Grass Court Championships at London's Queen's Club on Monday week.

The Las Vegan will make a final decision early next week. His coach, Brad Gilbert, is keen for him to play.

Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, has already confirmed that he will take a wild card for Queen's after losing to the Paraguayan Ramon Delgado in the second round in Paris. For some, the grass is already greener on the other side of the Channel.