Tennis: Kuerten stays cool and tries to keep focus on his game

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The Independent Online
THERE is a tradition here for sportswear manufacturers to utilise the entire side of a building to promote a leading player. Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Mary Pierce are among those who have been featured in the past. This year a Brazilian dominates Porte d'Auteuil, a stroll away from Roland Garros. The figure is not Gustavo Kuerten, the defending French Open champion, but Ronaldo.

The footballer is so big that his left arm extends to the side an an adjacent building. Whether he will arrive in person to watch his the progress of his friend Kuerten is open to doubt. Although the Brazilian squad's training headquarters is only half an hour's drive from Roland Garros, Kuerten has resisted invitations to visit them, and he hopes, respectfully, that the footballers will not crowd his court.

"I would love to see the players, but I will not go to their training ground because I must stay focused on the tournament," Kuerten said, "and if I see them at Roland Garros I will tell them to go away and practise, because I want them to win the World Cup."

"Gustavo is half-joking about sending them away," said Paulo Cleto, Brazil's Davis Cup captain, "but he needs to concentrate on his game. If he is still involved in the later stages of the tournament next week, he would like to stay on in Paris to see Brazil's opening match [against Scotland]. But, at this stage, that is only supposition."

It is. Today Kuerten is due to play his second round match against Marat Safin, the tall, powerful, 18-year-old Russian who eliminated Andre Agassi in five sets on Tuesday.

Kuerten's determination to do himself justice, having failed to win a title during the 12 months since his spectacular triumph here, has been disguised by a generally relaxed attitude. His dealings with the French media during the lead-up to the championships has earned him their "prix orange" award.

The "prix citron" has been awarded to Marcelo Rios, the favourite to relieve Kuerten of his title, if not his Mr Nice Guy image. Rios has the dubious distinction of becoming the first player to be voted the lemon three years in a row. It should be emphasised that these awards are judged on media cooperation, not on behaviour on the court. Otherwise, how would Mats Wilander's name appear on the roll of lemons?

Not that Rios would be likely to worry overmuch if he received lemons in perpetuity as long as his ability to play tennis remained unimpaired. Yesterday, having escaped the worst of rain delays to advance to the third round by defeating Spain's Emilio Alvarez, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, the Chilean expressed satisfaction with the power in his elbow.

"I've been much better every day," he said. "Always at night it's a little bit sore and I have to have some massage and take some pills, but its much better than it was two weeks ago."

The elbow injury cost Rios his No 1 position in the world rankings in April, and his next opponent, the South African Wayne Ferreira, defeated him in his opening match on returning to the ATP Tour in Hamburg three weeks ago. "I think this is the nice thing about this sport, when you get a rematch," Rios said. "It's really exciting to play Ferriera again and try to beat him."

Courier, the champion in 1991 and 1992, was eliminated in the second round by Germany's Jens Knippschild, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and Australia's Mark Philippoussis was outlasted by the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach, 3-6, 6-7, 7- 5, 6-4, 9-7.

Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, who are seeded to meet in the women's quarter-finals, advanced to the third round unhindered. It has been argued that a case for equal prize-money with the men might be made from the quarter-finals onward. Yesterday was "children's day" at Roland Garros and child's play for the two 17-year-olds. Hingis defeated Germany's Meike Babel, 6-1, 6-2, and Williams swept past Ai Sugiyama, of Japan, 6-0, 6-2, winning the first eight games.