Tennis: Medvedev triumphs in a memorable marathon: Courier bows out as Ukrainian sets up intriguing semi-final against giant-killing Russian

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IN ONE of those matches that linger in the memory long after a tournament may be forgotten, Andrei Medvedev defeated Jim Courier, 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, at the Monte Carlo Open to guarantee a semi-final today between two players from the former Soviet Union.

The 19-year-old Ukrainian plays his Russian friend Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the senior by six months, who has beaten Andre Agassi and Michael Stich en route to the last four.

Usually, the mere thought of three sets of clay-court tennis played over three hours and 19 minutes would induce sleep. But the centre-court spectators here yesterday were sorry to see the back of Medvedev and Courier, whose contest was as breathtaking as its spectacular setting.

The match had everything: courage; stamina; thrilling, skilfully crafted rallies; fluctuating fortunes, making the outcome uncertain until the final point; and a touch of luck. Not least, it was played in a wonderful spirit of sportsmanship.

At the finish, the players hugged at the foot of the umpire's chair, Medvedev confessing his good fortune, Courier swallowing his disappointment.

Last time they played, at the ATP Championship in Frankfurt in November, the American read a novel during the changeovers. Though there was ample time for a few chapters of War And Peace yesterday, Courier's mind never strayed from business.

Drama began to build towards the end of the opening set. Medvedev, having broken for 5-4, was unable to hold serve for the set, though he managed to save four break points before Courier levelled.

The American won the first of the tie-breaks, 7-5, Medvedev playing a careless forehand on the last point. It is possible Medvedev was still upset by the umpire's decision to overrule a line call at 3-3 in the shoot-out. The Ukrainian received a code violation for showing his anger by hitting a couple of balls into the crowd.

Happily, Medvedev's mood was not bleak for long. In the opening game of the second set he treated the crowd to a shot played between his legs, a la Yannick Noah. Courier, who must have thought his lob would be a winner, lost the point by netting a volley.

Breaks of serve were exchanged midway through the set, and Courier had two chances to break for 5-4 before having to pay for a couple of forehand errors in the 12th game.

The final set appeared to be in Medvedev's grasp when Courier made two backhand errors to be broken for 3-5, but the Ukrainian faltered when serving for the match. Even though the tension was building, the players good- naturedly gave each other a high five after a close rally in the 11th game concluded with Medvedev hitting the baseline with a brilliant shot.

Luck was with Medvedev in the tie-break, a forehand drive striking the net-cord and bouncing on his opponent's side of the court. This gave the Ukrainian a 4-1 lead, which he quickly extended to 6-1. After failing to secure the quarter-final with two subsequent serves, Medvedev finally lured Courier to direct a backhand over the baseline for 7-3.

'I had so many lucky points with the lets and the lines,' Medvedev said. 'I apologised to Jim in the locker-room, and he said, 'As long as it doesn't happen in the final of the French Open'.'

Stefan Edberg and Sergi Bruguera contest the other semi-final. Edberg required two hours and 35 minutes to overcome Thomas Muster, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, while Bruguera, the champion, sprinted past Goran Ivanisevic, 6-0, 6-3, in 58 minutes.