KUERTEN narrowly avoids stunning upset in French Open

Sunday, June 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ Defending champion Gustavo Kuerten fought back from the brink of defeat on Sunday to beat American qualifier Michael Russell in five sets in the French Open.

The top-seeded Brazilian saved a match point in the third set before turning the match around and eliminating his 122nd-ranked opponent 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-1.

After the fourth-round win, the two-time French Open champion carved a heart in the red clay with his racket, kneeled down inside it and blew kisses to the crowd.

``A big part of my way back was the crowd support,'' Kuerten said after the match, which lasted three hours and 25 minutes.

Russell stunned the 1997 and 2000 Roland Garros champion in the opening two sets, easily retrieving Kuerten's searing groundstrokes.

The 24-year-old Brazilian was down 2-5 in the third set, but held serve with an ace.

He wasted two break points in the next game, then set up match point for his opponent by sending his forehand lob wide.

Kuerten saved the point with a forehand after one of the match's many long rallies, then closed out the game with a forehand smash.

He went on to force a tiebreaker, winning the third and fourth sets and delighting fans who punctuated the match with cries of ``Gu-ga! Gu-ga!''. Few spectators chanted the American's name.

Russell continued to chase down Kuerten's groundstrokes, but the Brazilian closed out the match with yet another forehand smash.

``It's disappointing. Only one point away,'' Russell said. ``But he came up big. That's why he's the No. 1 in the world.''

The 23-year-old American has only won five of his 17 matches at ATP Tour level and has never won a title. He came within a point of losing his first qualifying match at this year's French Open.

Kuerten has won 232 of his 345 tour matches.

``For me I was already out of the tournament, so I'm going to play a lot more relaxed from now on,'' Kuerten said.

He will meet 1996 champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals. The seventh-seeded Russian beat Spain's Tommy Robredo 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

Kafelnikov has twice reached the quarterfinals since taking the title. Both times he lost to Kuerten.

Earlier Sunday Belgian teen-ager Justine Henin advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Austria's Barbara Schett 6-3, 6-4.

The win gave Henin, seeded 14th, her fourth straight-set victory in a row. She is playing only her second French Open.

Schett, ranked 25th in the world, ousted No. 2 Venus Williams in the first round last Monday.

Henin next faces Russia's Lina Krasnoroutskaya. The unseeded 17-year-old eliminated Italian player Silvia Farina Elia 6-2, 6-4. She is playing at the French for the second time, having lost in the first round last year.

Henin is one of only two seeded players remaining in the bottom half of the women's draw. The other is Belgian countrywoman Kim Clijsters, seeded 12th. Clijsters was to play Slovakia's Henrieta Nagyova for a place in the quarterfinals.

Top-seeded Martina Hingis was to face home favorite Sandrine Testud in the top half of the draw. No. 4 Jennifer Capriati was to play fellow American Meghann Shaughnessy, who is seeded 16th.