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From drop shots to dropped shorts, Safin keeps things interesting

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PARIS (AP) _ When Marat Safin's around, watch out! Not even he has any idea when he'll toss a racket, swat a miraculous shot, go off on a rant or ... lose a point for mooning the crowd?

Yes, Safin did all that and more on his circuitous route to the French Open's third round, somehow managing to both embellish and upstage his two-day, 4 1/2-hour victory over Felix Mantilla that closed Friday with an 11-9 fifth set.

On an afternoon when two of the top 10 women lost, including a semifinalist from last year, this rollicking major did try to resurrect a bit of normalcy. Four leading contenders won in straight sets to reach the round of 16: No. 3 Guillermo Coria, 1998 champion Carlos Moya, No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo and No. 5 Lindsay Davenport.

Safin, though, kept everyone on their toes, including tournament officials who debated whether to fine him for two offenses _ and must have loved his thoughts about how they're ruining tennis.

His match was suspended by darkness Thursday night at 7-7 in the final set. Early in that set, he and Mantilla engaged in a fantastic exchange that ended with both near the net. Safin claimed the point by scooping over a drop shot at a seemingly impossible angle. To celebrate, the 2000 U.S. Open champion grabbed his white shorts, tugged them to his thighs and leaned over, his long shirt providing cover. It appeared he wore underwear that remained in place.

The Russian drew laughter and applause from a standing-room-only crowd.

``This point really deserved that,'' Safin said. ``Nobody complained. Everybody was OK.''

Everybody, perhaps, except chair umpire Carlos Bernardes Jr., who earlier warned Safin for throwing a racket (which drew a $500 fine Friday) and now penalized him a point (no fine, though). Safin argued, then sarcastically applauded the ruling.

``They tried to destroy the match,'' he said.

Davenport thought Safin's antics shouldn't have cost him a point.

``It was a little uncalled for,'' she said after beating Marissa Irvin 6-1, 6-4. ``He definitely wasn't doing it in a fit of anger. They're always telling us to lighten up, anyway.''

When Mantilla sailed a backhand long to fix the final score at 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 11-9 after 24 minutes of play Friday, the opponents hugged at the net. Safin was in a far worse mood after.

``All of the people who run the sport, they have no clue. It's a pity that the tennis is really going down the drain,'' he said.

A few minutes later, came this: ``They do everything possible to, you know, just to take away the entertainment. You're not allowed to do that. You're not allowed to do this. You're not allowed to speak whenever you want to speak. You're not allowed to do many things. ...

``Every year, it's getting worse, worse and worse. I don't know where we're going to end up like this. It cannot go like this anymore. It has to be a radical change.''

Grand Slam Committee administrator Bill Babcock understood Safin's concerns about keeping flavor in the sport _ while also noting that chair umpires need to keep matches under control.

``When it steps past passion, either to obscenity or unsportsmanlike conduct, the rules have to make a stand,'' Babcock said.

Safin, never shy about expressing his emotions on court or opinions off it, did assure everyone his sport will survive.

``No matter what happens, tennis is still tennis: You can see a lot of great matches, a lot of new people,'' he said. ``It's doing well.''

Indeed, the benefit of a major tournament filled with surprising results is this: When well-known players such as Andre Agassi or Andy Roddick depart early, others get a chance to step into the spotlight.

Like Potito Starace, the 220th-ranked qualifier who eliminated No. 10 Sebastien Grosjean and will play Safin on Saturday. Or Zheng Jie, the first Chinese woman in a Slam's round of 16.

Or 17-year-old Maria Sharapova, who wasn't exactly in the shadows to begin with. Born in Siberia, she began training at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., at 9, found an agent at 11, and signed with the modeling agency that represents Tyra Banks. Oh, and last year she matched the best showing by a female wild card at Wimbledon by getting to the fourth round. Now she's back at that stage of a major after beating another Russian, No. 10 Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 7-6 (3).

Not everyone is thrilled with the topsy-turvy nature of this week, of course.

``This French Open is screwed up,'' said 2003 semifinalist and No. 8 Nadia Petrova, who lost to Marlene Weingartner, a woman she defeated 6-0, 6-0 the last time they played. ``It's a very open draw this year. Anyone can be in the final.''
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