Tennis: Medvedev on a high after dogged scrap

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The Independent Online
STEFFI GRAF is about to play her 84th match at the French Open, which is one fewer than the unforced errors Andrei Medvedev committed in overcoming Fernando Meligeni, of Brazil, in the men's singles semi- finals yesterday. Meligeni actually scored two more points than Medvedev (147 to 145), but the Ukrainian prevailed, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, after three hours.

High numbers have become a feature of the tournament. Medvedev, the world No 100, is the lowest ranked finalist at Stade Roland Garros in the 31 years of the open era.

At times the quality of the tennis was as grey as the cool, blustery day, but the contest was not lacking entertainment. Meligeni, a dogged left-hander with an expressive face and amusing walk, kept the result in doubt until the final point, forcing Medvedev on the back foot whenever the Ukrainian came close to finishing the job.

The 24-year-old Medvedev, who attributes his revival to his love for Anke Huber, was watched by the German player, whose expression was often as anxious as his own. Many a drop shot has helped Medvedev advance through the tournament, and one on match point put paid to Meligeni, 8-6 in the fourth set tie-break. "After running for three hours," Meligeni said, "it's difficult to imagine what the guy is going to do after you serve a very good serve, and he puts in a drop shot. It was very smart."

Medvedev's career, frequently buffeted by injuries and bruised confidence, tends to be lifted by visits to the clay courts of Paris, but never as much as during the past fortnight. Medvedev was a semi-finalist here in 1993, losing to Sergi Bruguera, of Spain, who went on to win the final that year and successfully defended it in 1994.

When Medvedev eliminated Pete Sampras, the No 2 seed, in the second round, much was made of the Wimbledon champion's uncertainty on clay. But Medvedev's straight sets victory against the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, the 1997 champion and the form player of the clay court season, showed there was genuine substance to his challenge.

Meligeni, aged 28 and ranked No 54, is one of the more experienced clay court players on the ATP Tour. He, too, sharpened his game on highly fancied contenders, defeating Australia's Pat Rafter, the No 3 seed, in the third round, and the Spaniard Alex Corretja, last year's runner-up, in the quarter-finals.

The Brazilian may have imagined the day was destined to be his after taking a 4-0 lead in the opening set, but the points began to go astray. "I lost my concentration a little bit, and he started to play aggressively," Meligeni said. "When you are 4-0 down, you have nothing to lose."

Medvedev needed that first set. By the middle of the second he was beginning to feel dizzy from lack of sleep the night before and called for the trainer. "He gave me some magic pills, and they worked," Medvedev said. "Then I had cramps in the third set. I think if it had been a normal match, maybe in the first or second round, I may have given up. But it was the semis of a Slam, only the second of one in my life.

"All I thought was to fight like a dog. If I died on the court today, I wouldn't care. If my heart had stopped, then I would have been proud that I'm dead this way.

"Normally I sleep eight hours. Last night it wasn't even half of that. The first three pills the trainer gave me were just minerals. Then he gave me one for the cramping. It didn't work. I asked for another one. He said, 'That's a double dose'. I said, 'Yeah, but I'm a double guy.'"

Trying to summarise his progress to the final, Medvedev said: "It's a minor miracle. On the other hand, it doesn't fall from the sky. You have to work for it. When you get an opportunity, you've got to take it. If you don't take it, someone else will. That's how it is. It's sort of a second birth to me. I've been out of competitive tennis, in my mind, for a long time. Now to be back, but not by accident, feels great."

Meligeni, though disappointed, expressed admiration for Medvedev's fortitude. "I think he has a very good mind to stay in the match like he did," he said. "I have to sat congratulations and good luck for the next match."

By this time, Medvedev was mid-way through composing a sonnet for Anke. "Anke was here as one of the supporters, and that felt great. Even if I had lost today, I would still be the happiest man on earth," he said.