Robredo exposes Hewitt's feet of clay

THE French Open's weeklong run of sun came to an end on the first Saturday, with foreboding clouds and flashes of lightning above the stadium.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

"This was the match of my life. To be two sets down and 0-3 down in the fifth and to have this crowd chanting my name in Paris against a guy like Hewitt, it's close to perfection," said Spaniard Tommy Robredo after upsetting the World No. 1. — Pic. AFP-

THE French Open's weeklong run of sun came to an end on the first Saturday, with foreboding clouds and flashes of lightning above the stadium. But the biggest thunderclap came earlier, when Lleyton Hewitt's tournament came to an end.

Hewitt, a tenacious Australian and one of the game's most ruthless finishers, may be ranked No. 1 in the world, but he is not No. 1 on clay. And though he won the first two sets and later jumped to a 3-0 lead in the fifth set, he could not find a way to finish Tommy Robredo.

It is not every week that Hewitt, 22, the child prodigy turned champion, loses to a younger man; Roger Federer of Switzerland was his only such conqueror in the professional ranks. But the quick, often spectacular Robredo, ranked 31st at age 21, has long been viewed in Spain as one of the country's next great players. He trained with established Spanish stars like Alex Corretja when he was in his early teens.

"This was the match of my life," Robredo said after his 4-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 third-round escape. "To be two sets down and 0-3 down in the fifth and to have this crowd chanting my name in Paris against a guy like Hewitt, it's close to perfection."

On another day of epic matches, this one was played on Roland Garros' atmospheric Court 1. Hewitt is a sight to behold as he launches his slender frame into the air to whack full-force two-hand backhands, but his foul mouth and penchant for questioning the competence of line judges have not endeared him to the French masses.

That explains, in part, why they spent much of the fifth set chanting "Tommy!" Robredo got his name from his father, Angel, a fan of the Who and its rock opera "Tommy."

"I played enough big matches in Davis Cup ties where crowds get pretty loud; you really don't hear a lot of the things," Hewitt said.

As usual, Hewitt ran for plenty, but he still lost a two-set lead for the first time in his career, and his leg-weary collapse in the fifth was complete; he lost the final six games and double-faulted twice on break points to lose his serve. In all, he had 12 double faults in the 3-hour-24-minute match and put only 47 per cent of his first serves in play. "I never thought I had it in the bag, no way," he said. "I wasn't holding my service games easy enough to even think about that."

Hewitt's best performance here remains his run to the quarterfinals in 2001, and he sounded more eager to talk about Wimbledon, where he is the defending champion, than to discuss ways to change his luck here. Hewitt's game certainly seems suited to clay. He is a fine tactician and one of the fastest men in tennis and, like many clay-courters, he does not build his game around his serve. But he remains convinced that he is at a disadvantage.

"You've just got to look at a guy like Coria or Ferrero move on the stuff," he said, referring to the Argentine Guillermo Coria and the Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero. "They've been playing on clay since they were five or six years old. I started playing on clay when I was 15 or 16. I only played a couple of tournaments a year. We just don't have enough clay courts to work on in Australia. I think that's one of the main reasons why we don't have that kind of player."

Venus, Capriati beaten

Venus Williams was knocked out a day later, losing in the fourth round to an 18-year-old Russian, Vera Zvonareva.

Though Venus Williams bore little resemblance to the imperious, serve-slamming champion who dominated the women's game before Serena took charge, Zvonareva handled the moment, and Venus' baseline power, too well for her 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory to have been a fluke.

The upset means there will be no fifth consecutive all-Williams final in a Grand Slam event, and it was not the only surprise engineered by a young, apparently nerve-free Russian. Little more than an hour after Zvonareva beat the third-seeded Williams, one of Zvonareva's childhood rivals in Moscow, Nadia Petrova, defeated another U.S. star, seventh-seeded Jennifer Capriati.

Just last month, Capriati beat Petrova in straight sets in the Round of 16 in the Italian Open, but the 76th-ranked Petrova was a much more confident, tenacious player in this Round of 16. She shook off an early break of serve in the third set and won six of the final seven games to close out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory.

It was a day for jangling the hierarchy, and Americans were the primary victims, with No. 6-seeded Lindsay Davenport forced to abandon her match against the Spanish veteran Conchita Martinez because of an injured toe while trailing, 4-6, 0-2. The two Americans who did reach the quarterfinals were No. 1-seeded Serena Williams, who defeated Ai Sugiyama of Japan, 7-5, 6-3, and No. 8 Chanda Rubin, who defeated Petra Mandula of Hungary, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Venus Williams, whose clay-court season was curtailed by a strained abdominal muscle, played poorly, double-faulting 12 times, hitting only four service winners and making 75 unforced errors. She even got booed by the French crowd as she walked off the court after declining a television interview.

"I don't think I had the kind of preparation I wanted," Williams said. "And I felt that I had to try to compensate in other areas, whereas normally I could be playing freely and swinging freely and just be completely ready."

Capriati, who won the French Open in 2001, looked much more fit and eager, but the lack of variety in her game cost her as Petrova showed off her own by winning 17 of 25 points at the net. "This is the best I've seen her play," Capriati said. "Everything was going her way, and if she can keep playing like that, she can go pretty far in the tournament."

Petrova's father, Viktor Petrov, was a hammer thrower in the Soviet Union. Her mother, Nadejda Ilina, won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics in the 400-metre relay. Petrova appeared poised for prominence when she reached the fourth round at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2001, but an injury to her left foot ruined her season last year and knocked her out of the top 100. Now, at 20, she is in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Zvonareva, who is based in Moscow, sometimes trains in College Park, where her coach, Julia Kashevarova, works at a junior tennis centre, and Zvonareva says she occasionally practices with the University of Maryland men's team.

A year ago, after qualifying here, Zvonareva took the first set from Serena Williams in the fourth round before fading in a hurry.

This year, she arrived in Paris seeded No. 22, having won a minor clay-court event in Croatia and having beaten top-20 players like Meghann Shaugnessy, Patty Schnyder and Anastasiya Myskina this season.

But she had never defeated anyone of Venus Williams' stature. After losing the first set, she quickly got her bearings and began to show off her speed, compact game and tactical precocity.

"If you go to the court and don't believe you can win, you will never do this," Zvonareva said. "I was believing that I was confident I could do this, but only in the case I would play my best tennis. I think I did it."

After breaking Williams' serve at 4-4 in the final set, Zvonareva won four of the five baseline rallies in the next game and capitalised on her first match point. Petrova also needed only one match point.

"They both have no fear," said the veteran coach Eric Van Harpen, who has worked with Martinez, among others. "They aren't like some of these young players who are afraid to win."

New York Times News Service