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Tennis: 'Nervous' Graf tripped up again by Coetzer

An eccentric French Open has grown even curiouser. The defending singles champions, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Steffi Graf, sont mis a la porte, and Dewulf is at the door.

Kafelnikov was caught and overtaken in five sets by the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, a blur in blue and yellow, who will now be challenged for a place in Sunday's final by Filip Dewulf, a Belgian qualifier.

Graf was so upset that she did not attend last night's ITF world champions' dinner. For Graf, it was a case of deja vu. Having lost to Amanda Coetzer in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January and suffered her worst defeat ever (0-6, 1-6) against the diminutive South African in Berlin only weeks ago, the German anticipated difficulties in the quarter-finals yesterday. Few observers, however, expected the champion to contribute so generously to her own downfall, 6-1, 6-4.

Graf's loss, coupled with Monica Seles's win against the American Mary Joe Fernandez, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, will relegate the German to No 3 in the world behind Martina Hingis and Seles next Monday. It will be Graf's lowest position for 10 years.

Hingis, the top seed, defeated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-2, 6-2, and plays Seles in the semi-finals. Coetzer plays Iva Majoli, the Croatian ninth seed who beat Ruxandra Dragomir, of Romania, 6-3, 5- 7, 6-2. Some of the names left in the tournament may hardly ring a bell in their own parish, but Filip Dewulf now stands alongside John McEnroe in tennis history.

The 25-year-old from Leopoldsburg, ranked No 122 in the world, is one of only three men to have come through the qualifiers to reach the semi- final of a Grand Slam Championship. He shares the distinction with McEnroe (Wimbledon) and Bob Giltinan (Australian Open), both of whom achieved the feat in 1977.

Neither McEnroe nor Giltinan managed to advance to the respective finals 20 years ago, and Dewulf may be hard put to deny Kuerten, who recovered from 1-2 in sets to defeated the third-seeded Kafelnikov, 6-2, 5-7, 2-6, 6-0, 6-4.

The result left Sergi Bruguera (No 16) as the last remaining seed in the men's draw. The Spaniard, twice a former champion, plays Hicham Arazi, of Morocco, in the quarter-finals today.

Dewulf, playing his eighth match since arriving for the pre-qualifying event, defeated Sweden's Magnus Norman - who eliminated Pete Sampras, the world No 1 in the third round - 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3. The last man from Belgium to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam singles was Jacky Brichant, who lost to Mervyn Rose here in Paris in 1958.

Graf has been accustomed to setting standards, having won 21 Grand Slam singles titles since last losing in the quarter-finals here in 1986, when she was defeated by Hana Mandlikova.

Yesterday's performance against Coetzer filled the 27-year-old Graf with foreboding. With only three weeks remaining before she is due to defend her Wimbledon title, she spoke at length about a crisis of confidence which has grown since her three-month absence because of a knee injury.

Her concern is hardly surprising, since Graf was officially debited with 64 unforced errors, although seven of that number had more to do with Coetzer's unrelenting competitiveness.

"It was a terrible match," Graf said. "I was really nervous starting off. I was very unsure of my shots, and I didn't seem to find the reach or the patience at all. It's just the state I'm in at the moment. I don't seem to have any self-confidence."

Not even a 45-minute rain delay, when Coetzer was leading 3-1 in the second set, revived Graf's spirits. "Even during the break I did not find a positive attitude," she said.

"I've been struggling a little bit in every match that I've played, but I usually manage to change it around. Today I couldn't. I got too frustrated. Amanda is playing well. That's obviously a factor, too. She's so steady and doesn't make mistakes."

Asked if she had experienced similar periods of uncertainty previously, Graf said: "Quite a few times, yes. I think in any career you go through stages. It's going to take another while to get [my confidence] back."

Did she think it would return in time for Wimbledon? "I'll work on it. It's good that I have a break now. I'll take some time off and probably not play for a couple of days, but work more on my fitness and see how it goes then. I think if I'm fit and ready. I'm going to be fine."