Nadal outlasts Frenchman in marathon
PARIS (AP) - Rafael Nadal found his latest win at the French Open so taxing that he took a seat in the middle of a game and called for a doctor.
The problem apparently involved a bite of banana, and wasn't serious. A bigger issue for Nadal was Frenchman Paul Henri-Mathieu, who traded groundstrokes with the defending champion for 4 hours, 53 minutes before losing in the third round Saturday, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Among Nadal's record 56 consecutive clay-court wins, the latest ranked with the most memorable - and it came on his 20th birthday. The epic first set alone lasted 1 hour, 33 minutes, and one game took 15 minutes.
A stadium filled with partisan Parisians hung on every point, rooting for an upset. Instead, Nadal improved to 10-0 at Roland Garros and remained on course for a much-anticipated showdown in next Sunday's final against top-ranked Roger Federer.
The match included a curious interruption at a pivotal moment, with Nadal serving for the third set at 5-4, 15-all. He hurriedly took a seat in his changeover chair, waved a banana peel at the chair umpire and pointed to his throat, as though the food he'd eaten during a changeover was stuck there.
Appearing anxious, Nadal conferred with a trainer and a doctor, then resumed play and closed out the set four points later to take the lead for good.
Even in the final set, the grinding nature of the rallies never slackened - the first game took 10 minutes. The wear of the match could make Nadal's fitness an issue in the fourth round Monday against two-time Grand Slam winner Lleyton Hewitt.
"You have to show him that you're there on the court to beat him," Mathieu said. "He's very, very good on clay, but I don't think it's impossible to beat him."
Also advancing were six players who earned fourth-round berths at a Grand Slam event for the first time - Shahar Peer, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Alberto Martin, Julien Benneteau, Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and Novak Djokovic.
The 19-year-old Peer became the first Israeli woman to reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam event since Anna Smashnova did it at the French Open in 1998. Seeded 31st, Peer advanced by upsetting 2004 runner-up Elena Dementieva 6-4, 7-5.
"We have maybe four clay courts in Israel," Peer said. "The rest is just hard courts. But I think the way I play and the way I move, I can improve and play better and better on clay."
Others advancing included defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, whose opponent Sunday will be 2004 winner Anastasia Myskina.
No. 12 Martina Hingis, playing at Roland Garros for the first time since 2001, and No. 2 Kim Clijsters also won. No. 32 Gisela Dulko beat Shenay Perry 6-1, 6-1 in 52 minutes, leaving one American - Venus Williams - in the women's draw.
No. 8 James Blake, the lone American left in the men's draw, won a tiebreaker to pull even with Frenchman Gael Monfils at 2-6, 7-6 (2) when their match was suspended because of darkness.
Mathieu, seeded 29th, didn't figure to give Nadal much of a test. The slender Frenchman had lost all four of their previous matches, including two this year, and had won only one of his past 15 matches against top-10 opponents.
Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is that he's the last player to beat Pete Sampras - at Long Island in 2002.
But Mathieu played Nadal on even terms from the baseline, winning his share of long rallies, and came forward enough to keep the Spaniard on the defensive. Mathieu won 36 points at the net to seven for Nadal.
Nadal lost his serve six times and converted only eight of 29 break-point chances. But inexhaustible as ever, he kept scrapping.
On one point the crowd thought Mathieu had hit a winner and erupted, but Nadal scrambled to scoop the ball back and went on to win the rally.
In the third set, the Spaniard yanked a running forehand passing shot crosscourt from five steps behind the baseline for a winner. He then hopped across the court and threw a jubilant uppercut.
Frenchman Mathieu rattles Nadal
Sat Jun 3, 2006 3:45 PM EDT162
By Bill Barclay
PARIS (Reuters) - A troubled and at times tormented Rafael Nadal stumbled through to the French Open fourth round on Saturday looking anything but the player who is deemed to be invincible on clay.
Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu gave the defending champion a nasty 20th birthday fright before the Spaniard prevailed 5-7 6-4 6-4 6-4 on a rowdy Roland Garros center court.
Mathieu was given little hope before the match but fed off the enthusiasm of home fans in the vertiginous 15,000-capacity arena, leaving Nadal looking clumsy and rattled in a match whose four sets lasted seven minutes shy of five hours.
The 29th seed became the first man to take a set off Nadal at this year's claycourt grand slam when the muscular Mallorcan erred with a forehand at 5-6. The first set alone lasted 93 minutes.
Mathieu's varied trajectory and angles troubled Nadal throughout, with his flat double-handed backhand often surprising the Spaniard who had not lost for 55 matches on clay.
Nadal dug in to take the next two sets but looked distinctly unhappy in the third set, first angrily arguing with the umpire over a line call and then calling a medical timeout mid-game after pointing anxiously to his throat.
With both players' socks soaked orange with clay dust Mathieu's will finally broke in the fourth set when he followed a double-fault with three forehand errors to lose serve at 4-4 and then flayed a backhand out on Nadal's first match point.
The fourth round is unlikely to be any easier for Nadal. There he faces Australian Lleyton Hewitt who beat Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty 7-6 6-2 6-2 in a display the former world number one described as one of his best on clay.
"My ball striking was great today. Right from the word go, I served as well as I've probably ever served, especially on clay," said Hewitt who is playing despite an inflamed ankle.