May 12, 2001

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Kuerten sounds serious warning

Top seed Gustavo Kuerten sounded a serious warning ahead of his bid for a third French Open title as he dismissed Spanish 10th seed Alex Corretja 6-2 6-3 at the $2.95 million Rome Masters Series event on Friday.

Brazilian Kuerten, the reigning French Open champion, was at his supreme best in advancing to the Foro Italico semifinals at the expense of Corretja, a former finalist at Roland Garros.

The world number one, who is looking for a second successive Masters Series title after triumphing at Monte Carlo in April, will meet Swede Andreas Vinciguerra in the last four here.

Gustavo Kuerten Vinciguerra knocked out Kuerten's close friend, Israeli Harel Levy, in the quarter-finals on Friday.

The other semifinal pairing, scheduled for Saturday, brings together eighth seeded Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero and Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti.

The in-form duo of Kuerten and Ferrero are the only two seeds remaining in the prestigious draw as they battle for supremacy on clay ahead of the French Open, which begins in Paris on May 28.

Kuerten, 24, took his recent record on the red dirt to 36 wins out of his last 37 appearances with two victories on Friday.

After rain delayed proceedings on Thursday, Kuerten was forced to step out early on Friday for his third round match with 15th seed Franco Squillari.

Kuerten dismissed the Argentine's challenge 6-1 6-2 in less than an hour.

Corretja, 27, also had unfinished third round business to attend to.

In a tense battle, he overcame the stern challenge of Lleyton Hewitt in a match interrupted on Thursday, despite wasting three match points to the seventh seeded Australian.

Hewitt, who also exited the men's doubles on Friday with playing partner Andre Agassi, refused to be downcast after his singles defeat.

He remains the only player to have beaten Kuerten on clay this year, in the Davis Cup in April, and Hewitt said: "My game on clay is improving all the time.

"I believe I can win a Grand Slam, and with the French Open coming up, I feel confident enough on clay now. I feel I can match any other player out there."

Corretja had a more immediate target in mind as he faced Kuerten under the Foro Italico floodlights - a third straight appearance in the Rome semifinals.

Kuerten, the 1999 Rome champion, had different ideas, however.

Corretja's game was riddled with unforced errors, but that did not detract from Kuerten's masterclass.

The fifth game of the second set epitomised the difference, with Kuerten scrambling from the baseline before hoisting a lob over a bemused Corretja as he went on to secure a crucial break of serve.

Kuerten may have to battle against a partisan home crowd in his semifinal with Vinciguerra.

The 20-year-old Vinciguerra claims to be half-Italian, for his father, Giuseppe, was born in Sicily.

Vinciguerra delighted the home crowd on Friday with a 7-6 (9-7) 6-2 quarter-final victory over Levy, and said: "I am surprised to be in the last four, but I had a feeling before the tournament that I would do quite well.

"It is enjoyable to win, especially for me. I did well as a junior but making the grade as a senior player on the Tour is very different."

With Corretja and Kuerten thrown together in the top half of the draw, Ferrero took advantage of his isolation in the bottom half to race into the semifinals.

A natural claycourter who is enjoying his best form, Ferrero finished off his rain-affected third round match against Julien Boutter early on Friday by beating the Frenchman 6-3 6-2.

Ferrero then stepped out on the Foro Italico centre court less than four hours later to demolish South African Wayne Ferreira 6-0 6-2.

He will face Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti in his semifinal, after Lapentti beat Spanish qualifier Jacobo Diaz 3-6 6-1 6-2 in another quarter-final on Friday.

Ferrero, 21, is regarded by many as Kuerten's closest rival on clay.

The Spaniard has won three titles already this year - at Dubai, Estoril and Barcelona - and Ferrero believes he is in prime position to claim a fourth here.

After dismissing Boutter and Ferreira, Ferrero, who has risen to number four in the ATP Champions Race this year, said: "This is my best form on a clay court.

"My serve and my groundstrokes are so good, and I feel strong physically. Compared to this time last year, I am fitter and can cope with long, three-set matches."

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