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| Sunday, June 4, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal was terrified.

Not because he was in the throes of a possible upset Saturday, a nearly five-hour match against an unheralded Frenchman playing brilliantly and backed by 15,000 rowdy countrymen in the stands. Nope, much scarier than that: The defending French Open champion thought he was choking on a piece of banana, right there on center court. In the middle of a game. When he was serving for the third set.

So Nadal put the ball in his pocket, walked over to sit in his changeover chair, and told the chair umpire he needed help. It was the oddest of pauses, the sort of thing you might expect to see in a public park, not at a Grand Slam tournament.

In any event, Nadal managed to clear his throat and get past a tough test from the 29th-seeded Paul-Henri Mathieu, outlasting him, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, to reach the fourth round and improve to 10-0 at Roland Garros.

"I was getting pretty nervous and a little frightened. It wasn't that I couldn't breathe, but I felt something strange," said Nadal, who turned 20 yesterday. "So I said, 'Wow, I'm going to stop. I'm going to stop so that nothing happens, and we don't have a tragedy here.' And if it looked bad, I didn't care."

The interruption only added to the theatrical nature of the match, which included an epic first set that lasted 1 hour, 33 minutes, a game in which Mathieu saved nine break points, and rally after rally of more than 20 strokes, with both players making remarkable retrievals.

All the while, the partisan fans backed their "Paulo," the French equivalent of "Paulie." They jumped out of their seats with arms raised to celebrate just about every one of his 60 winners -- six more than Nadal overall, 21 in the first set alone. They sang to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In," repeating "Allez, Paulo!" as the only lyrics. They jeered the chair umpire when close calls went against Mathieu.

They also showed their appreciation for the brilliance of the young maestro from Spain, applauding Nadal's most spectacular shots, though some whistled derisively as he walked off the court, residue from the unusual banana break.

"That's not nice," Nadal said, "because we played a very nice match."

Indeed they did, even if one kept wondering how long Mathieu -- a winner just once in his last 16 matches against top-10 opponents -- could trade blow for blow against the tireless Nadal. This wasn't the first time Mathieu let a lead slip away against a larger-than-life figure on this court. Mathieu led Andre Agassi two sets to none at the 2002 French Open, before allowing the American veteran to come back to win.

This time, Mathieu finally succumbed at 4-4 in the fourth set, when he double-faulted and made three consecutive unforced errors to get broken. Nadal then served it out, somehow summoning the strength to smack an ace at 128 mph to reach match point.

"I could see," said Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni, "he was wiped out."

Still, Nadal stretched his record winning streak on clay to 56 matches, and if that's to become 57, he'll have to beat two-time major champion Lleyton Hewitt for the first time. They meet in the fourth round Monday, because Hewitt beat No. 22 Dominik Hrbaty 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-2.

"He's an extremely tough player right at the moment, especially on this surface," said Hewitt, who's 3-0 against Nadal, all on hard courts. "It's a matter of me going out there and sticking to what I want to do out there. You know, I've still got to execute extremely well. And we know he doesn't give guys a lot of chances."

Nadal actually was the one who wasted plenty of chances, 21 break points by the wayside. But he limited his unforced errors to 39, which was 26 fewer than Mathieu.

"I had the feeling that I was going to lose," Nadal said, "but I also had the feeling that I was going to win."

Players often eat bananas to help avoid cramping during lengthy matches, and Nadal seemed to be chomping on them at every changeover, including at 5-4 in the third set. One bite slipped into his throat during the first point of that game. He played one more point, then stopped. Sitting, he shook a banana peel, and pointed to his neck, anxiety in his eyes. A trainer came out and visited him, then a doctor, during the 3-minute delay. Eventually OK, he finished off the game in short order.

"He's very, very good on clay, but I don't think it's impossible to beat him," said Mathieu, perhaps best known for being the last player to beat Pete Sampras in a tour event. "It's difficult, but it's not impossible."

Because their match took so long, the one between No. 8 James Blake, the only American man left in the tournament, and No. 25 Gael Monfils, a 19-year-old Frenchman, was switched from center court to Court 1. They had split the first two sets when play was suspended because of darkness, and action will resume today, as it will for No. 4 Ivan Ljubicic, leading 4-2 in the fifth set against unseeded Juan Monaco.

Four men reached the round of 16 at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time: Julien Ramirez Hidalgo and Alberto Martin of Spain, 19-year-old Novak Djokovic of Serbia-Montenegro and Julien Benneteau of France -- all unseeded, all toppled seeded opponents. Two women also are this far for the first time: Shahar Peer of Israel and 13th-seeded Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany.

But Shenay Perry lost to No. 32 Gisela Dulko 6-1, 6-1, leaving Venus Williams as the only U.S. woman still around.

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