Verkerk to play Ferrero in French final

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) -- Roland Garros newcomer Martin Verkerk became an improbable French Open finalist Friday.

The balding 6-foot-3 Dutchman advanced by beating Guillermo Coria, who narrowly avoided being defaulted after one set and still lost, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (0).

The unseeded Verkerk had never won a Grand Slam match entering the tournament, and he's the first man to reach the final in his French Open debut since Mikael Pernfors in 1986.

"This is a dream," Verkerk said. "This is actually a little bit of a joke."

His opponent in the final Sunday will be No. 3-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero, who ended marathon man Albert Costa's bid for a second consecutive title, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-4.

Verkerk's semifinal match nearly came to an abrupt conclusion. Trying to intercept Verkerk's final shot in the opening set, Coria heaved his racket at the ball -- and inadvertently in the direction of a ball girl 20 feet away. He avoided being defaulted only because she said she was unhurt.

"I threw the racket to touch the ball," Coria said. "It was not at all my intention to do any harm with the racket when I threw it."

Verkerk's astonishing run at Paris has improved his career record to 28-28. He's ranked 46th, thanks to a rise so meteoric that next week he'll keep a long-standing commitment to play in a Dutch club tournament.

With a serve reminiscent of compatriot Richard Krajicek, Verkerk will be a formidable foe for Ferrero.

But the stylish Spaniard will be the favorite to win his first Grand Slam title. He was in top form against compatriot Costa, avenging a loss in the 2002 final.

"I hope to leave with a better souvenir this time," Ferrero said.

Ferrero took charge by winning five of the first six games, and this time there was no comeback by a weary Costa. He overcame two-set deficits twice during the tournament and won four five-set matches, a Roland Garros record in the Open era.

"With all the sets he played, it's normal he's tired, and I was a bit fresher," Ferrero said. "It was a noble fight."

Verkerk smacked nine aces in the first set against Coria, and successive big serves helped him win the final two points of the tiebreaker.

When Verkerk closed out the set with an overhead slam, Coria flung his racket. The ball girl saw it coming and turned away to avoid being hurt as the crowd gasped and Coria put his hands on his head, alarmed at what he had done.

Coria approached the girl, pressing his palms together in a gesture of apology and shaking her hand. Then he took off his shirt and gave it to her.

Deputy tournament referee Fabrice Chouquet and a Grand Slam supervisor consulted and decided not to default Coria because the ball girl said she was unhurt.

"If you throw a racket in a ball kid's face, normally it's over," Verkerk said. "But on this occasion, a semifinal, he's a nice guy, he said sorry -- I don't think he should be disqualified. It's too big an occasion."

The episode didn't seem to affect the No. 7-seeded Coria's play, at least initially. He won the first service break in the match to open the second set and took a 2-0 lead. But Verkerk broke back for 2-2, then broke again in the final game of the set when Coria shanked a forehand.

Verkerk has more than just a 125-mph serve. Thanks to consistently deep groundstrokes, he was able to rally from the baseline surprisingly well with the speedy, crafty Coria.

In the final tiebreaker, Verkerk hit his 19th ace, a service winner and two groundstroke winners for a 4-0 lead. When Coria double-faulted on match point, Verkerk slid to the clay, put his hands to his face and arose in tears.

"I'm really emotional about it," Verkerk said. "I don't know what happened. To be a finalist at Roland Garros is a dream for me. I made it, and it's unbelievable."

He's the first Dutchman to reach a Grand Slam final since Krajicek won Wimbledon in 1996.

"If I can be on a list he's on, I'll be really happy," Verkerk said.

On Saturday, Roland Garros will host the first major women's final since the 2002 Australian Open featuring someone other than the Williams sisters. Instead, it will be the first all-Belgian Grand Slam final, with No. 2-seeded Kim Clijsters playing No. 4 Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Henin-Hardenne ended Serena Williams' 33-match winning streak in major events by winning 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 Thursday. Clijsters beat Nadia Petrova 7-5, 6-1.

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