Tennis: Croat advances with `OK' display

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Seeded players finally came to the fore at the Foro Italico yesterday, Goran Ivanisevic (No 6) and Marcelo Rios (No 7) advancing to the semi- finals of the Italian Open. Rios was particularly impressive, defeating Jim Courier in a spectacular contest, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6.

The 21-year-old Chilean left-hander, winner of last month's Monte Carlo Open, paid his respects to his opponent, a twice former champion now unseeded with a ranking at No 24. "I feel proud to have beaten a player like Jim," Rios said.

It was a close run thing, Courier forcing his way into a tie-break in a concluding set enlivened by six breaks of serve. The 26-year-old American then played a few loose points in the shoot-out, which Rios won, 7-4. "Hats off to Marcelo, he played a great match," Courier said.

Ivanisevic, a finalist in 1993, advanced to his fourth semi-final, ending Scott Draper's impressive week by defeating the 22-year-old Australian, 6-4, 6-4.

Fascinated by Ivanisevic's use of the word "unbelievable" to describe just about everything he does, an Italian colleague, Gianni Clerici, asked him if the reason was that he did not actually believe in what he could do.

"Sometimes I believe, sometimes I don't," Ivanisevic replied, offering as an example a crucial point he won in his victory against Boris Becker en route to the semi-finals. "I just closed my eyes and played the shot."

Ivanisevic did not need to resort to hitting blind during yesterday's quarter-final win against Draper which sets him up for a semi-final today against Spain's Alex Corretja. When Clerici asked if he thought his performance unbelievable, the Croat smiled. "It was OK," he said.

The unexpected does tend to punctuate Ivanisevic's career. The latest example was the accident that put him out of action for five weeks before his return at the Foro Italico this week.

"I went to my apartment to get something, but as I walked in I forgot what I was looking for," he recounted. "I stepped out, and suddenly remembered I had to take my rackets. I went back in, and while shutting the door I forgot to take my hand away. I broke my finger in three places."

On this occasion, in contrast to the pain in the neck he awakened with on the day of the Lipton final last year, an injury seems to have done him a favour. "I was very tired after playing a busy indoor season," he said. "I was sick of tennis. Luckily, I got injured in a very stupid way and took five weeks off. I didn't touch a racket for 20 days. I had a great time. I played a little soccer, I went to the gym, and I watched a lot of sport on television. I was very happy, not to break my finger but to have spent some time at home. God sent that door to make me rest before the French Open!"

Ivanisevic is likely to be considerably active this afternoon when he plays the 10th-seeded Corretja. The 23-year-old from Barcelona has shown a marked improvement since losing both of his previous matches against Ivanisevic in 1994, the first of which was in five sets in the third round of the French Open.

Corretja has already contested three clay-court finals this year, winning in Estoril and losing in Monte Carlo and Munich. He stayed on course for a fourth yesterday, although he had to work hard to overcome Karim Alami, the first Moroccan ever to reach the quarter-finals.

Sergi Bruguera might have warned his fellow Spaniard what to expect after his experience against Alami in the fourth round on Thursday night. The former French Open champion was defeated, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, after serving for the match at 5-3 in the final set.

Alami started brightly against Corretja, taking the opening set. Then, as the match slowly drifted away from him, the Moroccan perceived that a number of the line calls were loaded against him. He was still disputing a point or two with the umpire after Corretja had won, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.