SPORT

Kucera makes it black Friday for Canas

SLOVAKIAN SLAYER: Karol Kucera (left) of Slovakia gets a word of congratulation from top-seeded Guillermo Canas of Argentina, whom he beat in the Tata Open tennis tournament in Chennai on Friday. — Photo: V. Ganesan

SLOVAKIAN SLAYER: Karol Kucera (left) of Slovakia gets a word of congratulation from top-seeded Guillermo Canas of Argentina, whom he beat in the Tata Open tennis tournament in Chennai on Friday. — Photo: V. Ganesan  

Chennai Jan. 3. The "Little Cat'' metamorphosed into a hungry tiger and it was a mauling for the man on the other side of the net.

The defending champion and top seed at the Tata Open, Guillermo Canas, turned out to be meat and drink for Karol Kucera on Friday at what might be dinner-time for a European.

Four years ago, the gifted Slovakian had come here as a celebrated marquee name and top 10 player, only to wilt in the April heat and in the face of the relentless baseline assault mounted by the Swede Mikhail Tillstorm. Tonight, close to the twilight of a career marred by a series of injuries and one that has largely failed to carry him to the limits of his potential, Kucera, 28, played attacking hard court tennis like bingo with all the numbers in his pocket for a 6-1, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over Canas.

Kucera had lost to Canas here in the semifinals last year. What looked like a rout over the first half hour in the end turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable contest as Canas shifted gears, changed tactics and made a fight of it in the second set. But, then, there was no doubt at all at any point in the match who the superior player was on this day.

``I want to play like this in every match,'' said Kucera, who is world ranked 84 now. "It is a good feeling,'' said the man whose career has been derailed now and again by a series of injuries. Kucera missed Wimbledon and a few other tournaments last year because of a left knee injury and the year before a wrist injury had kept him out of the game for three months.

``It is nice to do well here. My goal is to stay injury free and try and play my best tennis,'' said the Slovakian who climbed to a career high No. 6 in September 1998.

Having seen Kucera outwit some of the greatest players of his generation — including the peerless Pete Sampras — the events of the evening on centre court were no big surprise to this writer. When the self-effacing Slovakian is on song, there are few players who can match him on court.

Timing the ball as well as he might have ever done, unleashing crosscourt forehands that were as effective as guided missiles, serving with power and precision when the odd threat loomed, Kucera was very much in command from the start.

In a little over half an hour, Kucera was up 6-1 and 2-0 and time after time Canas looked up at his coach Hernan Gumy with eyes that said it all. He would shake his head in disbelief and convey his helplessness to Gumy. Then, there was a turnaround of sorts in the fifth game, one of the longest in the match as Canas, directing heavily top spun high balls to Kucera's forehand, predictably drew a few errors out of his in-form opponent. The Slovakian lost serve in that game.

``I made a few mistakes there. It took time for me to adjust to his change of tactics,'' admitted Kucera.

It was in this phase of the match that Canas had his best opportunities to lift himself out of the hole into which he had been pushed by Kucera. But those moments were fleeting, and no matter how hard the Argentine World No. 15 tried, this was a night when there were no comebacks for him.

For his part, Kucera was not going to accept anything less than a fluent victory this evening. Having sorted out his problems with the high bouncing balls to his forehand, the Slovakian hit a marvellous forehand pass up the line to set up matchpoint on Canas' serve in the 12th game and then saw the Argentine scoop another forehand of his (Kucera's) into the net.

``When I came in here in 1999, I was a top 10 player and there was some pressure. Now there is no pressure on me,'' said Kucera. "But then the tournament was in April and it was very hot. The conditions were tough. In January it is pleasant and it is very good for me.''

Straight-sets win for Paradorn

Paradorn Srichaphan, Asia's best tennis player since Vijay Amritraj — in terms of rankings — has also been having a good time here in January. Tonight, last year's finalist made light of a spot of trouble in the second set to beat Sargis Sargsian of Armenia 6-4, 6-4. Down 0-3 in the second set, Srichaphan fought back with courage and skill, breaking back the Armenian's serve in the fifth game — the longest in the match — and then taking advantage of Sargsian's double faults in the ninth to break again.

Meanwhile, yesterday's hero, promptly despatched to the country-side, came to terms with realities of life and sport. Rainer Schuettler, seeded six, and the author of a famous victory over Mark Philippoussis 24 hours ago, was beaten by Jean-Rene Lisnard of France. Lisnard, world ranked 104, beat the 33rd-ranked German 6-2, 7-5.

On the same outside court where Schuettler lost, fourth-seeded Juan Ignacio Chela kept the Argentine interest in the tournament alive with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over the German qualifier Tomas Behrend.

The results:

Singles: Quarterfinals: Karol Kucera (Svk) bt 1-Guillermo Canas (Arg) 6-1, 7-5; Jean-Rene Lisnard (Fra) bt 6-Rainer Schuettler (Ger) 6-2, 7-5; 2-Paradorn Srichaphan (Tha) bt Sargis Sargsian (Arm) 6-4, 6-4; 4-Juan Ignacio Chela (Arg) bt Tomas Behrend (Ger) 6-4, 6-3.

Thursday's results: Singles (second round): Karol Kucera (Svk) bt Cecil Mamit (U.S.) 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3.

Doubles (first round): 2-Leander Paes (Ind)/David Rikl (Cze) bt Simon Aspelin (Swe)/Jim Thomas (U.S.) 6-4, 7-5.

Saturday's schedule

Centre court (5 p.m. start): Karol Kucera (Svk) v Juan Ignacio Chela (Arg); Jean-Rene Lisnard (Fra) v Paradorn Srichaphan (Tha); Mahesh Bhupathi (Ind)/Todd Woodbridge (Aus) v Frantisek Cermak v Leos Friedl

(Cze); Julian Knowle (Aut)/Michael Kohlmann (Ger) v Tomas Cibulec/Ota Fukarek (Cze) or Leander Paes (Ind)/David Rikl (Cze).

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