Tennis: Marat sustains French revolution

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The Independent Online
THAT a man called Marat should be the chief executioner has added a neat touch to the annual revolution at the French Open. The real Marat met a sticky end in Paris and his tennis counterpart could yet do so, but not before a few more distinguished members of the establishment have been dispatched to the guillotine.

Appropriately enough, the last remaining Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, now stands between Marat Safin and a place in the quarter-finals of the men's singles. "He has no pressure," Pioline said. "I'm not afraid of him, but I must not underestimate him either.''

To do so might lead last year's Wimbledon finalist towards the same fate as Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, the defending champion, and, in a minute under two and a half hours yesterday, Daniel Vacek of the Czech Republic, Sarat's victims in the opening week.

The Russian qualifier ranked 116th has now played 14 sets of tennis in reaching the fourth round, but only when he was down a break in the fourth set did his broad shoulders begin to slump. "I am almost too tired to be happy," Safin said after his 6-3 3-6 6-3 7-5 victory.

A glance at the draw should lift his spirits and the possibility of repeating Kuerten's heroics last year. A similar sense of destiny is overtaking this tournament. Only Marcelo Rios, at No 3, is left out of the top 10 seeds and he, Albert Costa, Thomas Muster and Felix Mantilla, the hardened claycourters, are safely engaged in the top half. The defeat of Richard Krajicek in straight sets by Pioline - and the evening defeat of Michael Chang by Francisco Clavet - further opened up the bottom half. Ten of the women's seeds have survived to reach the last 16.

No one will fancy engaging the heady cocktail of adrenalin and confidence on which Safin is running at present. Like Kuerten last year, he is discovering parts of his game he never knew existed. One drop shot off a full-blooded Vacek forehand midway through the fourth set defied the laws of physics.

Magicians produced rabbits from their top hats with much the same flourish and long before Vacek launched a fearful volley of abuse at the net-cord judge in the third set - in his native tongue, luckily - and hurled his racket across court after another mighty Safin forehand had left him flat-footed on the baseline and two sets to one down, the crowd on Court One had adopted the tall Muscovite as one of their own.

If Vacek hoped vertigo and fatigue would work in his favour, he was quickly disappointed. Safin barely sat down at changeovers, frightened that the dream might explode, the muse depart, and his first serve held firm at critical points. Vacek's tactics betrayed his confusion. Instead of pressing forward to play his natural serve and volley game, he stayed on the baseline, sent into retreat by his own insecurity and the Russian's punishing groundstrokes.

For a moment in the fourth set, as he took three straight games to break back and lead 4-3, it seemed as if his tactical confusion might prosper. Had he scrapped his way into the fifth, the balance of power would surely have shifted. But he missed the simplest of forehands into an empty court soon after and was passed by a backhand to leave Safin serving for the match. "I lost my concentration a little in the third set because I was so tired," Safin said.

The women's singles was resolutely devoid of character. Only one of the eight matches yesterday went to three sets. Serena Williams gave herself six out of ten for her debut on the Centre Court. Given that she beat the No 15 seed, Dominique Van Roost of Belgium, for the loss of just two games in only her second clay court event, that seemed a little bit harsh.

"One game, she was serving at 0-40. I should have won that game," Serena, the younger and sturdier of the Floridan sisters, said. "I was getting a little ahead of myself." Ranked 27th at the age of 16, the same could be said of her career.

Van Roost was too dainty to provide much of a test, though there was nothing wrong with her courage. On the eve of her 25th birthday, she won the first game in front of a sparse crowd and lost the next 11. Her first five service games yielded a mere four points as any variation in length was ruthlessly punished by the Williams forehand.

When the rout was temporarily halted with Van Roost holding serve, the feat was accompanied by a punch of the arms. Williams does not work out in the gym much. Thank heavens for that. Her game is quite muscular enough already.

After just 52 minutes, the prospect of the first Grand Slam final between sisters moved a step closer. Venus, who today takes on Henrieta Nagyova of Slovakia for a place in the quarter-finals, watched from the players' balcony. Whether as family or foe is open to debate.

New model Hingis, page 26