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Bothered by blisters, Safin exits; four Argentines left

| Tuesday, June 1, 2004

PARIS -- Marat Safin's left pinkie was mummified. Parts of four other fingers were wrapped with white tape, too, and matchbook-sized patches protected each burning palm. Splotches of rust-colored medicine stained his hands.

This was no way to try to reach the French Open quarterfinals, and Safin eventually succumbed to the pain of 11 blisters and the steady play of David Nalbandian.

Safin's riveting run at Roland Garros included two five-setters, three match points saved, a much-discussed partial disrobing, a rant about what's ailing tennis -- and it all ended in the fourth round with Monday's 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 loss to Nalbandian.

"The hands, I don't care about actually anymore, because I'm just a little bit frustrated," the 2000 U.S. Open champion said. "It was another big opportunity for me to fight for a title. Just to waste this opportunity this way, it's a pity."

The eighth-seeded Nalbandian joins No. 3 Guillermo Coria, No. 22 Juan Ignacio Chela and unseeded Gaston Gaudio to give Argentina half of a major's quarterfinal slots for the first time. And none faces each other next, a prospect that delighted Nalbandian.

"I'm a little surprised," the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up said. "It's not like this every day. I hope it will be all Argentines in the semifinals."

On Wednesday, he'll play three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, who finished his 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over No. 23 Feliciano Lopez caked with clay from a late tumble on a serve-and-volley bid that went awry.

"Look at me," a smiling Kuerten said moments after winning. "This never happened to me in my life. I'm all dirty."

Nothing was messy about Gaudio's 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Igor Andreev, who knocked off defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in the second round. Gaudio's quarterfinal foe will be No. 12 Lleyton Hewitt, a 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (6) winner against Xavier Malisse.

Two men's quarterfinals are today: Coria vs. 1998 champion Carlos Moya, and Chela vs. No. 9 Tim Henman, the first Englishman to get this far at Roland Garros since Roger Taylor in 1973. All women's round-of-eight matches also are today, highlighted by Serena Williams against Jennifer Capriati in a showdown between past champions.

With Safin's departure, three men are left who have won a Grand Slam title: Brazil's Kuerten, Spain's Moya, and Australia's Hewitt, the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon winner.

When Safin walloped Pete Sampras 3 1/2 years ago in the final at Flushing Meadows, his potential seemed limitless. The 6-foot-4 Russian was just 20, his serve was fearsome, and only his temper and a taste for the night life appeared to stand between Safin and a slew of Slams.

Well, he's still stuck on one such title and counting, although he did reach the Australian Open final twice. It was at that event in 2003 that he tore ligaments in his left wrist, an injury that sidelined him for the season's last three majors and sent his ranking down to 77th.

Unseeded at this year's Australian Open, he upset Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to reach the championship match, where he lost to No. 1 Roger Federer. Two gutsy comeback victories last week had No. 20 Safin thinking he could make a similar showing at the French Open -- but they also drained him and beat up his large hands.

Like a pianist or surgeon, a tennis player relies on his hands for his livelihood. It's all about feel, sensing the fuzzy ball on the racket's tightly wound strings. And against Nalbandian, a player he'd beaten in all four previous encounters, Safin not only couldn't muster the proper delicacy -- he was in pain on shot after shot.

"The last four games, I couldn't play. I couldn't hit a forehand," said Safin, who looked as if he had taken part in a high school biology class experiment. "I couldn't do many things."

By the fifth game, he was looking at one hand or the other after nearly every errant stroke. With Nalbandian serving at 40-30 in the next game, Safin interrupted play to have a trainer work on his hands, the first of at least seven times he was treated for the blisters -- six on his left hand, five on his right.

Safin drew whistles and jeers from the crowd when he called for the trainer at 30-all during the fifth game of the fourth set. He walked slowly to his seat, chucked his racket down, and threw a hand in the air, as if to reply, "Hey, get off my case."

To his credit, Nalbandian wasn't fazed much, his only real blip coming in the tiebreaker. He used drop shots effectively throughout, five times getting clean winners, and repeatedly luring Safin to the net before whipping a passing shot.

Asked about that tactic, Safin paid Nalbandian an insightful compliment.

"He has a great touch. He's one of the most talented people," a subdued Safin said. "He has really great hands. Great hands."

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