Sunday, June 1, 2003

Two-set leads evaporate in heat

French Open: Costa, Robredo win in comebacks

The Associated Press

PARIS - More than 4 1/2 hours into his third five-set victory at the French Open, Albert Costa leaned over the net, head down, tongue hanging. The defending champion appeared to be peering into a well, searching for drops of energy.

At the other end of Roland Garros, top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt screamed at himself, trying to get back into a groove as a big lead slipped away in his own marathon.

There's a special skill to grinding out long matches on clay, one that Costa suddenly has acquired, Hewitt still lacks - and the top women don't seem to need.

A week ago, Costa's 10-year record didn't include a single comeback from a two-set deficit. Now he has done it twice: in the first round and against unseeded Nicolas Lapentti in the third, winning 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 Saturday. Hewitt, meanwhile, dropped the last six games to No. 28 Tommy Robredo 4-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

"If I have to keep playing matches like this, I don't know how far I can go," Costa said.

A couple of his sets against Lapentti lasted longer than entire matches played Saturday by Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati, all past finalists. Each dropped only three games.

Costa gets today off, and he needs it. He has been on court nearly 12 hours already, playing 148 games. His next foe - No. 32 Arnaud Clement, the last Frenchman in the field - hasn't lost a set.

Costa-Lapentti was packed with as much drama as a miniseries and was just as long. They hugged at the net when it ended; later, they accused each other of gamesmanship.

With the temperature around 80, both sought treatment from trainers and both took bathroom breaks. After one, Lapentti returned to the court looking like he had taken a trip to the market, toting a can of soda, a bottle of water and a banana.

Costa got a neck rub in the second set, while Lapentti was hit by leg cramps and got his thighs massaged several times. By the fifth set, Lapentti moved as though walking barefoot on coals. So he camped out at the baseline, relying on heavily spun drop shots.

"I was beginning to think, 'Am I going to play for more than 4 1/2 hours and lose to a guy who can't even run?' " Costa said.

Lapentti actually won more points, 162 to 161.

Until Saturday, Hewitt never had relinquished a two-set edge - and Robredo never had overcome one.

But Hewitt admits he's not at his best on clay, and he only once has been a French Open quarterfinalist.

"I just took the foot off the pedal a little bit," he said. "I'll look back on it, and I won't be that disappointed."

At a glance

Men: Seeded winners - No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero, No. 9 Albert Costa, No. 19 Fernando Gonzalez, No. 20 Felix Mantilla, No. 28 Tommy Robredo, No. 30 Jarkko Nieminen , No. 32 Arnaud Clement. Losers - No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 12 Sjeng Schalken, No. 25 Tim Henman.

Women: Seeded winners - No. 2 Kim Clijsters, No. 3 Venus Williams, No. 6 Lindsay Davenport, No. 7 Jennifer Capriati, No. 15 Magdalena Maleeva, No. 22 Vera Zvonareva, No. 24 Conchita Martinez. Losers - No. 30 Paola Suarez.

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