Someone asked Ivan Lendl the other day if he was surprised that his opponent in the semifinals of the French Open is Johan Kriek. Lendl, always so careful with his answers to questions, nodded his head.
"I'm very surprised," he said. "But I think he's probably more surprised than anyone."
For both Kriek and Mikael Pernfors, the last 10 days have been a delightful surprise. The fact that they are decided underdogs going into Friday's semifinals at Roland Garros Stadium doesn't bother either man.
Kriek, who never had won a match here before last Monday, plays Lendl, the top seed and the heavy favorite to win his second French Open championship. After that, Pernfors, a 22-year-old Swede, takes on Henri Leconte.
The second match is more likely to give the French fans some thrills. With Yannick Noah out of the tournament because of an injury, Leconte has become the focus of French adoration. At 22, he is one of the most charismatic players in the world. He attacks all the time and punctuates points with facial expressions ranging from joy to disgust.
Pernfors will feed him a steady diet of two-fisted backhands and topspin forehands and try to wear him down with steadiness the way he wore down Boris Becker in the quarterfinals Wednesday. "I think his style suits mine well," Pernfors said today. "I think I'll be comfortable playing him."
Both players come in confident. Pernfors, who won two NCAA championships at the University of Georgia, has beaten Becker, fellow Swede Stefan Edberg and Martin Jaite to get here. Leconte caught a break in the draw when Mats Wilander was upset. Then he got down two sets and faced two match points in the third against Cassio Motta of Brazil. Since surviving a 12-10 tie breaker to beat Motta in that third set, he has won eight straight sets, losing a total of 14 games.
"I'm playing very well right now," Leconte said. "Last year, I would play one good match, pull an upset, then play not so well in my next match. Now I think I can be more consistent."
Consistency is the quality Leconte has lacked. Not so Lendl, who whales away with his serve and his ground strokes, throwing in an occasional volley. He has lost one set here -- in tie breaker -- and is everyone's pick to become champion Sunday.
Kriek never has won a set in eight matches against Lendl. Also, he never has played him on clay, largely because Kriek has avoided clay the way a scarecrow ducks fire. This year, Kriek decided to take a crack at the French so his wife could see Paris and do some shopping. He didn't expect to do much winning.
Instead, he has done lots of winning and Tish Kriek has done very little shopping. In his victory over Guillermo Vilas Tuesday, Kriek broke all the rules of clay court tennis: coming in constantly, going for winners, refusing to be conservative.
"I had to play that way to have a chance," Kriek said. "I'll have to play the same way against Lendl."
Lendl has the power in his game that Vilas does not. When he gets ahead and gets rolling, he is almost unbeatable. To have any chance at all, Kriek must start fast, serve superbly and get lucky. Naturally, Lendl is worried.
"You don't get to the semifinals of the French without playing very good tennis," Lendl said. "You better believe I'll take him damn seriously."