Tennis: Kuerten razes Rafter

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The Independent Online
PAT RAFTER'S prospects of rising to No 1 in the world yesterday were ended by Gustavo Kuerten, who produced as fine a display of all-court play in winning the Italian Open title as the Australian had given in the art of serve-volleying on clay in advancing to the final.

The tall Brazilian, who, until he moves and strikes the ball, gives a laid back impression, defeated Rafter 6-4, 7-5, 7-6, in two hours and 39 minutes. That puts Kuerten back in the top 10 (No 9) today and means that Rafter's position only improves by one place, to No 3.

Kuerten's reputation as a king-maker remains intact, however. Carlos Moya, of Spain, spent two weeks at No 1 in March after defeating the Brazilian in the semi-finals in Indian Wells, California. And, by stopping Rafter yesterday, Kuerten guaranteed that Yevgeny Kafelnikov will start his third week at the top, even though Kuerten defeated the Russian in straight sets in the third round.

Kafelnikov, consequently, will go into the French Open, which starts next Monday, as the No 1 seed, with Pete Sampras No 2. Kuerten is bound to be among the favourites in Paris, where he won the title in 1997. During the past four weeks, the Brazilian has won both the Monte Carlo Open and the Italian Open, regarded as the first two legs of a red clay grand slam. In addition, Kuerten defeated both Moya and Alex Corretja in straight sets as Brazil won last month's Davis Cup tie in Spain.

Rafter, who at least had the satisfaction of becoming the first Australian to reach the Rome final since his fellow Queenslander Rod Laver in 1971, had not encountered Kuerten on a court until yesterday. Rafter's admirable determination to play his natural serve-volley game on clay was deficient in the service department. "I didn't get my serve together the whole match," he lamented, adding, "I would always struggle against Kuerten on clay."

The opening two games gave an indication how the contest was likely to go. Rafter double-faulted to 0-40 and was then passed by a backhand down the line; Kuerten hit three aces in saving two break points. A couple of forehand errors in the fifth game saw the Australian slip to 1-4, although he did recover one of the breaks for 3-5, retrieving a drop shot and watching a Kuerten lob land beyond the baseline. Next time Kuerten served for the set, at 5-4, his game was error-free.

Rafter was more persistent in the next two sets, even though he was usually the player chasing the ball. This was certainly the case in the fifth game of the second set, during which the Australian had to save four break points after leading 40-0. He denied Kuerten the first opportunity with a smash, only to lose his footing trying to intercept a backhand pass to offer the Brazilian the second chance. Despite the tumble, Rafter's defiance continued, and he finally saved the game with an ace.

After such an effort, Rafter's frustration in losing his next service game, for 3-4, was understandable, and he threw his racket to the ground after offering Kuerten the opportunity to break by netting an angled half- volley.

As in the opening set, Kuerten had to serve twice to secure the second set. Rafter recovered a break, for 5-5, Kuerten playing a backhand lob long to lose the game. Rafter was unable to sustain the success. Kuerten created three break points in the next game, and, although Rafter clenched his fist in delight after saving one of them with an exquisitely angled backhand drop-shot, he was unable to counter his opponent's cross-court backhand on the third.

Kuerten continued to nag at Rafter's serve in the concluding set, the Australian saving break points in the fifth, ninth and 11th games en route to the tense tie-break. Rafter netted a low forehand volley, his only set point, at 5-4, Kuerten in turn netting a forehand on his first match point, at 6-5. He then took the title and $350,000 (pounds 218,000) with a backhand return and an angled backhand volley for 8-6.

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