PARIS — With the familiar red clay underfoot, and chants of “Gu-ga!” ringing in his ears, Gustavo Kuerten felt right at home.
Something about the French Open inspires the three-time champion: His preparation doesn’t matter, nor does his health, nor does the opponent, apparently.
Showing no signs of a bum hip or recent time off, Kuerten upset No. 1-ranked Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 Saturday to reach the round of 16 at Roland Garros for the sixth straight year.
“I came here in bad shape, playing bad,” said the man known as Guga, who entered the French Open ranked 30th and just 2-4 since February. “But every time I go on the court, it seems something special happens with the love and passion I have for the tournament that brings the best out in me.”
It tends to bring out the worst in the top-seeded Federer, who lost to journeymen in the first round in 2002 and 2003. After the latter disappointment, he went 19-1 at Grand Slam tournaments, winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
Boasting a tour-high four titles and a 34-3 record this season, the Swiss star never worked his way into the match against Kuerten, though, failing to secure a break point after the second game.
“I don’t really care what I did. Now it’s over. The tournament is over,” Federer said when asked whether he erred in strategy. “What can I do now?”
Book a flight, for one thing. His early exit follows those by defending champions Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne and marks the first time in French Open history that both top-seeded players lost before the fourth round.
The “ooh-waah” Kuerten seemed to sing as he exhaled while swinging through each groundstroke sounded similar to the fans’ chants of his nickname echoing through the main stadium, where green-gold-and-blue Brazilian flags dotted the stands.
The spectators were in an angrier mood 6 hours later, when full-throated boos were directed at Marat Safin as he walked off the same court at dusk, toting a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Italian qualifier Potito Starace, who’s ranked 202nd.
The match provided the most theater on a day when Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati moved into the women’s fourth round.
Safin — penalized a point for pulling down his shorts during a two-day, five-set, second-round victory over Felix Mantilla — drew the crowd’s ire by repeatedly stopping play to have blisters on his left hand treated by a trainer.
The most notable interruption came while Starace was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set and right after a spectacular forehand passing shot erased Starace’s second match point (Safin saved one against Mantilla). The jeers and whistles were so loud during that delay, Safin climbed up the chair umpire’s stand to hear him.
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