Tennis: Pioline presses on as Kuerten collects fine

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HAPPY but weary, Cedric Pioline is relieved to be able to take a day's rest today while French tennis followers clear their throats in anticipation of a weekend of cheering his coronation as the first home champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.

Pioline appeared close to sinking into the clay yesterday before summoning the will to win his second consecutive five-set match in advancing to the French Open semi-finals. The local favourite knows that he cannot afford to offer Spain's Alex Corretja as many chances as he gave the gifted but erratic Morrocan, Hicham Arazi, yesterday.

Arazi, who started the match as France's second favourite, having lived in the country since his family moved from Casablanca when he was two years old, was able to convert only four of 21 break points and held two set points before losing the third set. Pioline prevailed, 3-6, 6-2, 7- 6, 4-6, 6-3, after three hours and 42 minutes.

Having been unsuccessful in two Grand Slam finals against Pete Sampras, at Wimbledon and the United States Open, Pioline, who will be 29 in 12 days' time, is determined to match the persistence of Petr Korda, who won his first major title at 30 at the Australian Open in January.

Henri Leconte, in 1992, was the last French semi-finalist. Leconte was also the last finalist, losing to Sweden's Mats Wilander in 1988.

Corretja, who could turn Sunday's final into a fiesta against one of his compatriots, Carlos Moya or Felix Mantilla, overcame Filip Dewulf, of Belgium, in yesterday's other quarter-final, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.

Gustavo Kuerten, the deposed champion, was fined $7,000 (pounds 4,300) yesterday after being disqualified from the men's doubles on Tuesday night for throwing his racket, which came close to hitting the umpire, Bruno Rubeuh, and landed in the crowd. Nobody was injured.

Kuerten's arrival at the airport on Tuesday night coincided with the injured Romario's departure from the World Cup, so his compatriot was able to make a public apology via Brazilian television, radio and newspapers.

In a statement at the tournament, he said: "I'm so sorry for what happened and I regret what I did. We were playing good tennis, even after the mistakes the umpire made. When we lost that point, on the set point, I tried to relieve my tension by throwing the racket in the direction of my chair. It escaped and went towards the chair umpire.

"In that moment I knew I was going to be disqualified. I know I made a big mistake and that the racket's place is in my hand. I want to make it clear that I never had the intention of hurting anyone."

Martina Hingis hurt herself, if not her prospects of completing a collection of Grand Slam singles titles, by hitting her left shin with her racket while attempting to execute a shot between her legs during yesterday's doubles quarter-finals.

The 17-year-old world No 1, who is due to play Monica Seles in the singles semi-finals today, tried the trick shot on the penultimate point of her doubles victory with Jana Novotna against Conchita Martinez and Patricia Tarabini. "When I saw Tarabini hit a shot between her legs I wanted to try one," said Hingis, who was treated for bruising. "I'm not worried about it. I'm always getting little scratches and bruises from my dog Zorro."

Seles was asked the other day if she intended to dedicate her performance here to her late father and coach, Karolj, who died only 12 days before the start of the championships. "No," she replied, "because my dad believed whenever I stepped on the court it was just for me. I think of him every day."

She will relish today's challenge of playing Hingis, particularly as she was defeated by the Swiss at the same stage last year, 6-7, 7-5, 6- 4, and has lost all five of their matches.

"Last time we played here we had a very tough match," Seles said. "Martina is the No 1 player, so you know what she's going to give you. You have to play the best tennis that you can. That's what I will try to do."