Clijsters and Hewitt consider tying the knot

World No. 2 Clijsters, who turned 20 the day after the women's final, said that she and her world No. 1 boyfriend Hewitt have discussed getting married.

TENNIS' most famous playing couple Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt are talking about tying the knot.

World No. 2 Clijsters, who turned 20 the day after the women's final, said that she and her world No. 1 boyfriend Hewitt have discussed getting married.

"We do talk about it sometimes," Clijsters told French television. "But I'm still young. I'm 20. Lleyton, he's 22. So I think we have time." But Clijsters admitted that she was considering a change in residency because of the amount of taxes she pays in Belgium, and did not rule out becoming an Australian citizen.

"People have been saying a lot of things. I'm thinking about changing residency, and I spend a lot of time in Australia, but I'm really happy to go home from time to time."

Clijsters' father Leo, a former Belgian international footballer, revealed that she pays the taxman between 50 and 60 per cent of her earnings, much less than footballers in Belgium.

The player from the northern Flemish-speaking part of Belgium admitted that her life has totally changed since reaching the finals here two years ago when she was catapulted to the status of national heroine.

"My life completely changed after the 2001 finals. When I returned, all the street was covered with flags. I realise how important it is for people, particularly when you play in Paris there are a lot of Belgians who come," added Clijsters.

Eclipsed Venus puts fashion dreams on hold

Long since eclipsed by her younger sister, the once-mighty Venus Williams cut a pitiful figure at the French Open after suffering her worst defeat in more than a year.

It was a loss, which ended her run of four consecutive Grand Slam finals. Never mind that Venus had lost all four to Serena — the point was that only her sister could beat her.

But after Russian teenager Vera Zvonareva snuffed out her Roland Garros chances, Venus Williams — twice a Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion — faced the world with honesty and a candour rarely witnessed before.

Languid stares and bored replies — long a Venus hallmark — were replaced by refreshing frankness, reflecting a realisation that things must change if she is to regain the top spot.

It seems tennis may once again take priority in the life of a woman whose commitment to the sport has often been questioned, not least by herself.

"I would love to win a major and I would love to finish number one," she said.

"I suppose I'll just play more tournaments, play more matches. I think that will help me also to... definitely get into the groove of things."

This is a far cry from the situation two years ago when Venus gave the distinct impression that she needed simply to turn up at events to walk off with the silverware.

She won her Wimbledon and two U.S. Open crowns in 2000 and 2001 while playing a light schedule.

Fashion and design played an equally important part in her life as tennis and it appeared the American, forced to grow up in front of the cameras, could balance the two.

The 22-year-old is certified as an interior decorator and this year is due to graduate with a degree in fashion design from the Art Institute at Fort Lauderdale.

Already she is chief executive of her company V Starr Interiors, named after her own exotic name, Venus Ebone Starr Williams.

She has been spending more and more time `hands-on' at the company's Palm Beach Gardens headquarters in Florida.

"I go to the office, I pick out fabrics, I take telephone calls, I do all kinds of things," she said earlier this year.

All that may be put on the backburner now, however, as Venus makes it clear she is far from finished in the tennis world.

"What do I want to accomplish? Obviously a lot of tournament wins, all that good stuff. I don't think it will be extremely difficult because I've won majors before, I've won tournaments before. I feel like I have the experience to be successful and now I just have to go on and do it."

Guga can't find that samba rhythm

Gustavo Kuerten, three French Open crowns to his name, said he was unable to find his usual samba rhythm as he bowed out in the fourth round to Spanish star in the making Tommy Robredo.

"Guga" set Roland Garros alight when he arrived here as a 20-year-old ranked 66 in the world and promptly beat Spanish two-time champion Sergi Bruguera before adding further titles in 2000 and 2001.

Never before had the swish Roland Garros complex been invaded by hordes of flag-waving, soccer-shirted Brazilian fans, many of whom drummed out a furious samba beat long after their hero had disappeared into the night, having earlier sprayed champagne onto several from a first floor window.

But this time he found Robredo more than a match as Kuerten's legs, now bearing the tell-tale scars of six years of tough battles and his hips, operated on last year, failed to last the pace in a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 win for the Spaniard.

"I should have imposed myself more on the match in that first set," said Kuerten, who began solidly before throwing the set away.

Kuerten opined that the game had become more aggressive on clay since he started out — and he lacked a little against Robredo.

"Nowadays you have to play an attacking game and with a lot of aggression.

"(Carlos) Moya, (Juan Carlos) Ferrero, (Guillermo) Coria and (Andre) Agassi don't just volley, they play tough as well and mix their approach work also," said the man who was once the undisputed king of clay.

"Robredo mixed things up very well. He did a lot of drop shots and moved me around the court. I couldn't impose my rhythm."

The hypnotic beat of the samba will not be heard again at this championships.

Agassi turns to grass

Andre Agassi lost in the quarter-finals of the French Open for the third year in a row and then set his sights on grass. Argentina's Guillermo Coria outplayed the 1999 French Open champion 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

"It's a challenging time of the year for me, on the clay," said Agassi, who has played in three finals at Roland Garros, losing in 1990 and 1991.

"And in a strange way I sort of look forward to the torment of trying to figure it out and quite look forward to when it's over.

"But when the disappointment settles a little bit, I'll be able to look forward to picking up my game where I left off last time I was on a court with lower bounces," said Agassi, who won the first of his eight Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 1992.

Asked what he hoped for at Wimbledon this year, he joked: "To play Coria."

The Argentine, reaching a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time, said Agassi had been his idol when he was a child.

"I'd rather not be his idol and play him on a hard court than be his idol and play him on clay," said Agassi.

"You know, it's not for me to suggest that I'm going to win every time I play on a hard court but I definitely know that on this surface he poses a tremendous threat to anybody. He's one of the best out there on it," Agassi said.

The only active player to have won Grand Slams on all surfaces, Agassi, who added another Australian Open crown this year, was led to reflect on his career so far.

The American has played more career matches than anyone else on the circuit right now but is some way behind Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors, who leads the way with a record 1,425 matches at tour level.

No player has been able to win in Melbourne and Paris successively since Jim Courier in 1992.

"To say something's not possible is a naive statement, because anything's possible," said Agassi.

"But winning all four in one year would certainly rank up there with one of the most difficult things to do in the whole of sports.

"I'm overwhelmed with the things that I've managed to accom<147,4,1>plish but it doesn't quite take away the immediate disappointment of having to figure out how I can do it again. And I'm disappointed," he said.

Gilbert to guide Roddick

Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert has teamed up with Andy Roddick after the young American slumped out of the French Open with a dismal first-round loss.

Roddick's agent told local media in Florida that his client had parted ways with Frenchman Tarik Benahabiles, who had guided the 20-year-old A-Rod since August, 1999.

Only recently Roddick said that he had no intention of ending his working relationship with Benahabiles, adding that the coach was not to blame for his early exit at Roland Garros.

"The results lie in my hands. He's a smart guy, he's been around the block many times. But there's not much you can do from the stands when your player's playing like crap." Roddick reached a career-high ranking of sixth earlier this year and owns six titles.

But the spring in Europe was a strain, with Roddick winning his first title outside of the States the week before the French Open start in St. Polten, Austria, then crashing out in a first week American exodus at Roland Garros to Sarge Sargsian.

In an effort to shake things up, Roddick will be coached by Brad Gilbert, former long-time mentor for Agassi. Roddick's agent Ken Meyerson said the arrangement appears to be experimental, but added: "The decision has been made to terminate the relationship professionally and amicably with Tarik, ... Brad has agreed to work with Andy the next few weeks."

Gilbert reached the 1990 Wimbledon quarter-finals during his career as a player. "It's a question of getting a different perspective. He really wanted to work with Brad on the grass," said the agent.

Haze clears over Roland Garros

There's a little less smoke in the air at the French Open after officials stopped the sale of cigarettes on the grounds of Roland Garros.

While anti-smoking laws in North America have become tougher, there's still a bit of social elasticity left in France — but not, apparently, at the Gallic Grand Slam.

This edition marked the first time that a 1992 anti-smoking law was strictly enforced during the fortnight in a nation where good living, fine food and decent wine — often followed by a cigarette, is quite the norm, with none of the bad connotations inherent across the Atlantic.

But with the law bearing down on smokers, tournament officials had little choice but to go along.

As a result the Marlboro stand, which for years has satisfied nicotine-starved addicts, is gone.

Officials said they received around 100 queries during the first few days about the missing tobacco outlet.

French law bans smoking in all enclosed, covered and collective public spaces. But while smoking areas may be also designated, "no smoking" signs are often considered mere suggestions by many.

Verkerk has no time for romance

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras have both shown tennis need not be a young man's game — though they started off early on the path to Grand Slam glory, winning their first majors at 22 and 19 respectively.

Dutch big-hitter Martin Verkerk may never enjoy such monumental success — but he was the man of the moment in Paris after reaching the men's singles final.

Not long ago Verkerk was just a 24-year-old who liked to wield a racquet for fun — when he could put aside the good life and the nightclubbing, which he deems the right of any young man.

Before the French Open, he had never won a Grand Slam match in his life.

So dizzy has been his belated rise to the forefront of the game that Verkerk suddenly finds himself too busy for certain of life's attractions.

The mere thought would surely have horrified him a few short weeks ago — but, right now, Verkerk is a confirmed bachelor. "At the moment I don't have a girlfriend," said Verkerk.

But behind every good man there surely has to be a woman. There is — but Verkerk wants to go the platonic route for now as he chases tennis titles, realising the time has come to fulfil his talent.

"In Rome — there was a girl I was with for three and a half years. She still comes to watch me because she's still really important to me and she still supports me. We are great friends.

"Now I'm thinking about how happy I am and how unbelievable it is," said Verkerk.

Verkerk had only once made the headlines — winning his first ATP tour title at Milan in February after an impressive victory over Russian fifth seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Shortly before that he had won his first challenger in Turin.

"After Milan I started believing in myself," said Verkerk, who said in the past year and a half he had finally knuckled down after enjoying life until he was 23.

Now, with glory beckoning, fun and romance must wait. And Verkerk, who has been shocked to see himself in slow motion in television replays, says if he has to `win ugly' that's okay with him.

"Yeah, it's ugly! It's terrible. But I'm not here to be beautiful, I'm here to win."

Coria's flying racket hits ballgirl

Argentine Guillermo Coria escaped disqualification from the French Open semi-finals after he hurled his racket and it hit a ballgirl.

The seventh seed had just lost the opening set tiebreak against unseeded Dutchman Martin Verkerk when he slung his racket in disgust to the back of the court.

It flew several metres at head height and grazed the girl, named by organisers only as Perinne.

Coria, who went on to lose the match 7-6, 6-4, 7-6, immediately threw his hands in the air and looked to French chair umpire Cedric Mourier as the Paris crowd jeered and whistled.

Mourier came down from his chair and both he and assistant referee Fabrice Chouquet asked the girl if she was alright.

A mortified Coria took off his shirt and handed it to the 16-year-old before holding his hands together at chest height and asking if she was okay.

"I threw the racket to touch the ball as I do usually but it just flew out of my hands," Coria said after the match.

"I felt very bad for the next few points and perhaps that is why I lost the second set. But it was really bad luck.

"I apologised for it three or four times. I really felt bad. I didn't mean to do any harm when I threw it."

An International Tennis Federation spokesman said that under their rules Coria could have been disqualified for the incident but that officials were able to use their discretion.

Instead the Argentine was given an official warning for racket abuse and allowed to continue the semi-final.

"It all depends on the intention but the fact is I never intended to do any harm," Coria said.

"I apologised to the young girl. I didn't intend to kill her or to do her any harm when I threw the racket."

Britain's Tim Henman was thrown out of the Wimbledon doubles in 1995 when he struck a ballgirl with a ball hit in anger. Henman and partner Jeremy Bates were immediately disqualified and Henman was later fined $3,000.

Paes and Bhupathi consider Olympic reunion

Estranged former Indian doubles stars Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi could bury their differences in a bid to earn an Olympic gold, Bhupathi revealed here.

Bhupathi and Belarus doubles partner Max Mirnyi, the U.S. Open champions, went down in three sets to Paes and Czech partner David Rikl in the men's doubles quarter-finals.

But after later advancing to the mixed doubles quarterfinals with Russia's Elena Likhovtseva, Bhupathi said he would not rule out a reunion to play at the Athens Olympics. "Both of us would like to go to the Olympics with the chance to win gold," said the 28-year-old from Bangalore. "I wouldn't say no, but we'll see, it's better that no one puts pressure on us. We were out there to play tennis not to try and beat up each other," he added.

By contrast Paes said that the win was a bittersweet one for him against a partner with whom he won Wimbledon in 1999, and the French Open in 1999 and 2001.

The duo, popularly known as "he Indian Express" and who were once No. 1 in the world, had already split once in 1999 before reforming their partnership just before the Sydney Olympics the following year, where they went out in the second round. They reformed briefly to win the Mallorca title in April 2002 before separating again.

Paes and Rikl, the fifth seeds, rallied from a set down, breaking the reigning U.S. Open doubles champions when they were serving for the match at 5-4 to take the tie 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.

And Paes admitted that the match was one of the most important in his career. "As much as you like to be a professional it's tough to play against someone you won here two times with," said the 29-year-old from Kolkata.

"As hard as it was playing against Mahesh it does feel kind of sweet. It was hard when I was left in the lurch last year. It seemed like I was playing against two boys who cost me quite a lot in my career. Both our partners knew how big the match was for us and both came out firing. There was a lot of aggro going on out there. All four of us lost serve one after the other."

And Paes, who won the Australian Open mixed doubles title this year with tennis legend Martina Navratilova, admitted it had been hard getting back. "I've always said that doubles is like a marriage. Although I've never been married I have my doubts now," he said, adding that the break-up had been hard on their many common friends.

"We have a lot of close friends in Paris and they were out there. Friends who had cheered for us together. When I met them afterwards I knew it in their look they didn't know what to do. That's why it was a bittersweet win," Paes said.

The Indian paid tribute to his partner Rikl who managed to lift his morale, after Paes was broken again early in the second set.

"His mental maturity is great for the team. He kept looking at me and nudging me and saying `Be patient it will come.' And the momentum came back in our favour."

Paes said that despite their differences he would try not to let the bitterness over the break-up interfere with their Davis Cup commitments for India.

"We're professionals at the end of the day and that decision Mahesh made last year was a professional one. As much as it has caused a huge rift in our friendship once you go out in Davis Cup you go out and play as professionals. But it showed in the Asian Games we were out of synch."

Roland Garros wrath

Spectators and officials at the French Open have played down the role of the crowd's hostility on Serena Williams's semi-final loss to Justine Henin-Hardenne.

"I've seen much worse," said a French federation official, referring to recent finals involving Martina Hingis or Mary Pierce.

French sports daily l'Equipe slammed the 16,000 spectators on centre court for "their silly and nasty" attitude.

"The crowd booed and whistled and expressed themselves in the most odious way by cheering vigorously her first serve errors," l'Equipe said.

"The American who, like her sister Venus never criticised an umpire's decision, did not deserve it," the newspaper added.

The tearful American world No. 1 admitted she had been very upset by the crowd's behaviour.

"I was really upset when they booed me. It was just a tough crowd out there today, really very tough. It's the story of my life. It's a little difficult. All my life I have had to fight," she said.

"It's just another fight I'm going to have to learn to win, that's all. I've just got to keep smiling," added Williams, who was not the first player to fall foul of the Roland Garros fans.

In the 1999 final the crowd took sides with retiring Steffi Graf against then world No. 1 Martina Hingis, who also left the court in tears.

Hingis was also booed off court in her first final in 1997 as the home fans took exception to what they considered her arrogant attitude.

It was the same with Williams.

"I don't like Serena. She does not respect her opponents," said spectator Camille Clement, to the nods of her friends.

Williams had been criticised on French television when she crushed France's Amelie Mauresmo in the quarter-finals for her determination to beat the crowd's favourite, commentators saying she looked "ready to kill."

But despite her demolition of the home favourite, she was given a relatively light time by the fans.

Nationality, it seems, is not the driving force for the home fans.

Frenchwoman Mary Pierce was jeered for years as the Roland Garros spectators, frustrated with her failure to lift the title that finally came her way.

And the longest booing in the recent tournament history was aimed at local hero Henri Leconte, when he told the crowd: "I hope you have now understood my game," after losing a one-sided final against Mats Wilander in 1988.

"We French just like the underdogs better than winners. And Justine is so cute," said French fan Sauveur Merlan, attending the French Open at Roland Garros for the 17th time.