It was Spain's day at the French Open, no argument. Juan Carlos Ferrero, the planet's best on these clay courts, was near-flawless in his dismantling of Tim Henman. But the real thunder and drama came on the two other show courts of Roland Garros where, at the same time as Henman was conducting his brave rearguard action, Tommy Robredo and Albert Costa were coming back from two sets down to knock out top seed Lleyton Hewitt and Nicolas Lapentti respectively.
Henman encouraged the British contingent among the audience on Court Central, where he was making his debut in his eighth year of competition here, by winning the first set against the willowy 23-year-old artist the Spanish call "the Mosquito". But clay-court class eventually took its toll, and Henman's bid to get into the second week at Roland Garros for the first time was terminated 4-6 6-2 6-4 6-2 in 10 minutes under three hours.
It could, and should, have been quicker. Ferrero, normally such a composed taker of chances, converted only six of the 18 break points he conjured on the Henman serve, and by the end, in the relative cool of the evening after a day of sultry, strength-sapping heat, the British No 1 looked washed out.
How different it was in the opening set. Having saved a brace of break points to stay in front at 4-3, Tim went on to break Ferrero and go a set up with a glorious cross-court forehand which dipped across the Spaniard as he charged the net. To top off his disappointment, Ferrero needed treatment for a finger injury, and resumed looking thoroughly miserable.
His tennis did not reflect this. There was an immediate break of the Henman serve and Ferrero never looked back, sweeping the second set comfortably and then being content with a single break of serve in the third and fourth sets.
But Henman remained upbeat. He said: "I feel my game's moving in the right direction. I'm hitting the ball more aggressively but with more control. Being realistic, the better player won, but I can take a lot of positives from the match today and build on that.
"It's still a building process, though, and when I come to Queen's and Nottingham I want to put together more wins. Things have turned around pretty quickly and there has been a big improvement. I'm satisfied that my game is coming around."
Ferrero, named by his parents in honour of his nation's king, underlined his position as favourite to go one better this year and win the crown for which he was runner-up 12 months ago. Robredo, in contrast, was named after the rock opera, his father and coach, Angel, being a fervid fan of The Who. If Tommy was a pinball wizard, Robredo proved to be a champion of the bounce-back. Two sets down to a world No 1 who has built ranking and reputation on his fighting qualities, Robredo savaged Hewitt 4-6 1-66-3 6-2 6-3. As if erasing a two-set deficit was not enough, Robredo also trailed 0-3 in the final set, only to sweep the next six games. In what may become the understatement of the season, Hewitt conceded Robredo had "picked up his game a little bit". Robredo put it all down to a mixture of luck and consistency.
Poor Costa, the holder of the title, has not yet been considered important enough to merit a place on the main court. But he is in the running for this year's marathon man, having gone the five-set distance in all three rounds and twice come back from two sets down. "I thought this time I was gone," he said after a brutal contest in which he and the Ecuadorean Lapentti ended out on their feet.
This is a tournament which exacts a heavy price in its opening week. Just ask the French and Americans. On the 20th anniversary of the last occasion a French male, Yannick Noah, hoisted the Coupe des Mousquetaires, Arnaud Clement is the only one of the host nation's entrants to survive into tomorrow's fourth round. The 6-4 6-3 6-2 victory which he plundered from his compatriot and friend Nicolas Coutelot on Court Central yesterday ensured, moreover, that Clement is in the last 16 at Roland Garros for the first time.
Coutelot had got this far via the exhausting route of the qualifying competition. The two men used to be close rivals as children, but Clement has gone far ahead nowadays, not only in the rankings but also in the on-court fashion stakes. With his green chequered headband, trademark sunglasses and two-tone goatee, he was a catwalk contrast to Coutelot in his plain white sponsor-free shirt and crumpled shorts. Bravely, Clement insists being the last Frenchman will not bring pressure. "Of course I have a responsibility, but the crowd will be behind me and the crowd are so beautiful here, they give us wings."
As for Andre Agassi, he views the loneliness of being the last American as just another challenge. "I hope there's another level to come, that's why I continue playing," said the 33-year-old after beating the Belgian Xavier Malisse.
Sjeng Schalken had to retire in his third- round match against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile. Gonzalez fell victim a few days ago but by the time he went on court he said it was "nothing very serious." It was for poor Schalken. After retiring at at 7-6 6-3 3-1 down. He had succumbed to a stomach virus which has affected a number of players in Paris.Reuse content