Costa continues to live dangerously in new endurance test

French Open: Defending champion's popularity grows as he completes hat-trick of five-set comebacks to line up semi-final against Ferrero
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The Independent Online

Albert Costa was asked if he was tempted to make a tactic of losing the opening two sets of his matches and then walking up to the net and saying to his opponent: "Now I've got you where I want you".

"It could be nice," said the 27-year-old Spaniard, "but it's a little dangerous." Costa has lived dangerously ever since he arrived to defend the French Open men's singles title here at Roland Garros. He advanced to the semi-finals yesterday, becoming the first player in the open era to win three matches from two sets to love down on the clay courts of Paris, and also the first to win four five-set matches here.

After toiling through 227 games and a total of 18 hours and 31 minutes ­ only 66 minutes less than his entire campaign here a year ago ­ Costa now comes face-to-face with his compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero, the man he defeated in last year's final, when Ferrero was not fit enough to give his best.

Ferrero, the third seed, is in good shape this time round, although his endurance was tested yesterday by Fernando Gonzalez. The big-hitting 19th seed from Chile pushed "The Mosquito" for five sets before Ferrero prevailed, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. Ferrero's match lasted three hours and 29 minutes, one minute longer than Costa's, but overall he has been on court for seven-and-a-half hours less than his rival.

Moreover, Costa had to shake off a two-set pasting from Tommy Robredo, a 21-year-old compatriot whose impact on the tournament has been immense. Robredo fought back from two sets down to eliminate Lleyton Hewitt, the world No 1, in the third round, and then accounted for Gustavo Kuerten, three-times champion here, in four sets in the fourth round. Costa survived, 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2.

"Robredo was killing me, he was hitting so hard," Costa said. "I had to change my game. I was standing behind the baseline and was returning short and playing a little short, so I started to play inside of the baseline, hitting hard. And I started serving big, not thinking about 'kicking' the serve. Today it was the perfect tactic, I think."

The analysis was not contradicted by Robredo, who said: "Albert made a great comeback and I have to congratulate him. He started to push hard and changed the match. When I played against Hewitt and came back to two sets all I was thinking, 'Maybe I'm in good shape and I'm going to win'. That's maybe what Costa thought when he arrived in the fifth set. In the end he was better."

Ferrero, who eliminated Britain's Tim Henman in the third round, was not in his sharpest form yesterday, converting only eight of 31 break points. Gonzales is not the type to let off the hook. His game may be erratic ­ he committed 103 unforced errors in the match and his first serve percentage was only 15 per cent in the opening set ­ but he chases his shots without fear.

The concluding set was one of the most dramatic of the tournament. Ferrero broke for 3-2, Gonzales levelled. Ferrero broke for 4-3, but was forced to save a break point in the next game. And the resilient Chilean saved five match points as the Spaniard served for the match at 5-4.

Costa's escapes have made him a legend at Roland Garros, something that winning the championship patently failed to do. Presumably that is why the seventh seed had to slog through three five-set matches before he was granted the privilege of playing on the Centre Court.

He almost created an unwanted record in his opening match 10 days again, when he came close to becoming the only French Open champion to lose in the opening round. Costa was two sets and 4-1 down against Sergio Roitman, an Argentinian "lucky loser," who also held a break point for 5-1.

Costa's second match, against the Czech Radek Stepanek was a more conventional marathon, the players exchanging sets in turn, with Costa winning the fifth. Next up was Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, who warmed Costa up for two sets and lost the next three.

After that, Costa was invited into the main arena in the fourth round, and promptly eliminated Arnaud Clement, the last Frenchman in the draw, in straight sets, which was almost like a day off.

Costa was asked how he managed to raise the stamina, but his rectitude has had as much to do with his pride of being the champion as any fitness regimen. "I'm tired, the same as the others," he said, "but I have the motivation to try to win again. I'm not thinking, 'Well, I won once and that's okay, let's go on vacation', it's true that I feel very proud, because every day I'm surprising myself."

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