Tennis: Rios' grand design turns to dust

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The Independent Online
AN emotional afternoon at the French Open ended with Marcelo Rios' prospects of winning the men's singles title lying in the dust - along with his hopes of returning to No 1 in the world - and with Monica Seles courageously earning a meeting with Martina Hingis in the women's semi-finals for the second consecutive year.

The day's events guaranteed a new Grand Slam champion in the men's singles, Thomas Muster, who won the title at Roland Garros in 1995, losing to Felix Mantilla, of Spain, who will duel with his compatriot Carlos Moya for a place in Sunday's final.

Moya eliminated Rios 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, in the quarter-finals, both players endeavouring to erase memories of disappointing performances on major occasions. Moya was unable to do his talent justice against Pete Sampras in the 1997 Australian Open final, and Rios froze against Petr Korda in the final at Melbourne Park in January this year.

Yesterday's contest exposed the 22-year-old Chilean's vulnerability under pressure. Although the No 3 seed recovered from an edgy start to play a dazzling second set which raised cheers around the Centre Court and prompted a standing ovation in the President's Box, he lapsed into bouts of bad temper when the contest began to slip away.

Having won 14 consecutive matches, he needed one more to overtake Sampras at the head of the game, a feat he achieved fleetingly in Florida at the end of March before an elbow injury put him out of action.

As the match moved towards a dramatic climax, Rios threw his racket after netting a forehand to be broken to 4-5 in the fourth set, convinced that Moya had played a shot on the second bounce of the ball.

Moya had to wait for the fuss to calm down before serving for a place in the semi-finals. The Spaniard saved a break point at 30-40 with a forehand down the line, and then created four match points.

Rios saved the first by hitting a line, and on the second had the luck of a net cord in returning a second serve with a backhand drive. Sheer skill took care of the third, the Chilean producing a stop volley with sufficient spin for the ball to clear the net and then kick back towards it.

Moya delivered his seventh ace to give himself the fourth opportunity, and then left his opponent with little option but to net a backhand in attempting to intercept a forehand volley.

Mantilla's win against Muster, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, was helped to some extent by his opponent's problem with a back spasm, although the Austrian insisted that on the day he was simply beaten by a better man.

Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, the deposed men's champion, also lost his temper and was disqualified for throwing his racket at the umpire, Bruno Rebeuh during a doubles match last night. Kuerten was playing a quarter- final with compatriot Fernando Meligeni against Australian Pat Rafter and Swede Jonas Bjorkman when the incident happened.

"Apparently there was an argument on a call on serve. Kuerten threw his racket at the chair umpire. It travelled fast and very dangerously. It was a clear default situation," chief umpire Gilbert Ysern said. "Hopefully we can give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not trying to kill the umpire.'' Nobody was hurt.

Two years ago at Wimbledon Rebeuh had a row with American Jeff Tarango, during which Tarango's wife slapped Rebeuh's face.

Seles's quarter-final victory against Jana Novotna, the No 3 seed, was achieved on the Suzanne Lenglen Court, named after the great French champion whose legend inspired Seles in her early days. Having entered the event only 12 days after the death of her father and coach, Karolj, she continued to capture points and hearts with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.

Seles, who pushed Hingis to three sets a year ago, is the latest hurdle between the 17-year-old world No 1 and a set of the four Grand Slam titles. Yesterday, in what many observers perceived to be the ideal match-up for the final, Hingis outsmarted the American teenager Venus Williams, 6-3, 6-4.