Costa Tops Ferrero, Wins French Open

Monday, June 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ Albert Costa watched through the years as his friends and countrymen made Roland Garros their clay-court playground.

Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui met in a French Open final eight years ago. Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja played for the championship in 1998.

While his fellow Spaniards evolved into top Grand Slam contenders on clay, Costa had to confront a lingering question: ``What's happening with me? They're playing the final, I'm not.''

He can stop asking. He's now a French Open champion.

``I don't believe yet that I won in Roland Garros. I need at least two or three days to think about it,'' Costa said Sunday following his 6-1, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 victory over another compatriot, Juan Carlos Ferrero.

If it takes that long to sink in, Costa will be preparing for a celebration of a different sort in what certainly will be one of the most memorable stretches of his life _ he's getting married Friday, and Corretja will be his best man. Later this month, Costa will turn 27.

On the women's side, the Williams family had another memorable Grand Slam tournament. Serena beat Venus 7-5, 6-3 Saturday, nine months after her older sister won their first Sister Slam final at the U.S. Open. When the rankings are released Monday, Venus will be No. 1, and Serena, as she put it, ``a solid No. 2.''

Costa's victory, built with well-angled and consistent groundstrokes and the surprisingly error-filled play of Ferrero, ended with him covered in clay. He jubilantly fell to the ground on his back after Ferrero double faulted on match point.

``When I was there, I was thinking, `Did I win?''' Costa said.

After greeting Ferrero at the net, he made his way to the friend's section to kiss his parents and soon-to-be wife while hoisting his 1-year-old twin daughters.

Costa said his trip to the victory podium actually began during the clay court season a year ago when he decided it was time to play stress-free tennis.

``I was getting completely crazy in the court,'' he said. ``I start to think, 'I don't want to feel this anymore, I just want to be relaxed. I just want to enjoy tennis.'''

That approach at Roland Garros, where he'd never advanced past the quarterfinals previously, helped him oust two-time defending champion Gustavo Kuerten and then beat Corretja in the semifinals.

Then against Ferrero he played two nearly flawless sets of tennis, winning in 46 minutes. After a 25-minute rain delay in the third game of the opening set, he reeled off 11 straight games _ a nearly unheard of run in a Grand Slam title match.

``I was playing unbelievable tennis,'' Costa said. ``I was a little surprised because in a final, I was supposed to be nervous.''

Ferrero looked nervous but blamed his lethargic play on ankle and abdominal injuries.

``I was not making things hard for him because I was making unforced errors all the time,'' said Ferrero. ``I lost my confidence. I thought I couldn't win today.''

His usually precise groundstrokes that helped him send Andre Agassi and Marat Safin out of the tournament were flaring up.

Ferrero had 60 unforced errors, his frustration boiling over several times. He drove one ball into the upper deck, hit his racket on the ground and another time slammed it on top of the net.

With the fourth set 3-3, Costa broke at love, held at love and then squandered a first match point before Ferrero's double fault brought him his first Grand Slam title in 26 attempts. It was his first title of any sort since Aug. 1, 1999, at Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Costa's victory reflects the balance in the men's game. It's the first time in the Open era that there have been four straight first-time Grand Slam winners, with Costa following Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon, Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open and Thomas Johansson at the Australian Open.

All 12 of Costa's tour titles have come on clay, and now he has the biggest prize of all on that surface. What's more, he's escaped the shadow of his compatriots. Asked if he is now Spain's best player, Costa wasn't making any declarations.

``I think now this is my moment because I won Roland Garros. That's for sure,'' he said with a laugh. ``I cannot say I'm better than them because it is not true.''

But on a cool windy day in Paris, it was.