PARIS, JUNE 6 -- The favorites were broomed out of the French Open with the red clay dust, and a first-time men's champion is guaranteed. Among the remaining semifinalists are a guy who a year ago was hitting tennis balls from a wheelchair and a journeyman who has never been here before, Thomas Muster of Austria and Andres Gomez of Ecuador winning their quarterfinal matches at Stade Roland Garros today.
The door to the men's title was thrown open when top-seeded Stefan Edberg and No. 2 Boris Becker were upset in the first round, and some unlikely prospects have come partway through it. Seventh-seeded Muster has overcome knee surgery after a frightening accident last year when he was hit by a car, and this afternoon he defeated Becker's upsetter, 18-year-old Goran Ivanisevic of Yugoslavia, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Fourth-seeded Gomez, 30, a burly clay-court specialist with rolling topspin who has never been a Grand Slam semifinalist, crushed France's last hope in qualifier Thierry Champion, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, to set up a meeting Friday with Muster. He then summed up what all four remaining players -- No. 3 Andre Agassi of the U.S. will meet unseeded Jonas Svensson, 23, of Sweden in the other semifinal -- have sensed since that day a week ago when the favorites fell.
"It was too good an opportunity," Gomez said. "After 10-12 years, there was no way I was going to let it go."
Muster and Gomez may not have been the players most favored to win the French at the start, but they aren't the darkest of horses. There are no Grand Slam champions remaining in the field between the notable absences of Becker, Edberg and also Ivan Lendl, who chose to prepare for Wimbledon instead of coming here. So they have filled the void of strong contenders -- both being experienced, savvy clay players who displayed massive topspin and pace on an afternoon when there was little other action.
If others haven't picked them, they picked themselves. Gomez is fit, having lost 15 pounds playing a heavy schedule of 13 tournaments this season. "My feeling is I came here as one of the favorites, and in a way I was put aside," he said. Muster has a 37-7 match record and arrived early in Paris expressly because he thought he had a chance. He has rented a private apartment to eat home-cooked meals and avoid distraction.
"I like myself," Muster said. "Perfect."
Muster met a smooth, potentially brilliant young prospect in Ivanisevic, a shambling 6-foot-3 teenager who won the 1988 Australian and French junior titles and has been known as a comer inside tennis circles. Ivanisevic aced Muster 16 times, three shy of his total against Becker, and one of them came on a twisting second serve to clinch the second set. He also displayed murderous groundstrokes.
But his drawbacks are easily lost concentration and an erratic rawness. He also said he suffered from a virus earlier this week that left him feverish and weak. He double-faulted to give Muster double set point in the pivotal third set. Muster eventually broke six times. The Austrian also claimed six games at love with his unrelenting drives from the baseline.
Muster's shots are "so heavy, and he is moving them right and left," Ivanisevic said. "He plays like this, he wins the tournament."
Should Muster do so, it would represent a comeback of the highest order. He was absent from the tour for five months following surgery on his left knee when he was struck by a car during the Lipton International in Key Biscayne last year. He used the time to work out, and when asked if anybody is in better condition, he replied, "Arnold Schwarzenegger." He had a custom-built wheelchair so he could hit tennis balls while in his cast.
Muster is a driven worker who wears a row of bracelets to commemorate each of his five tournament victories. But since the accident, he has been less inclined to brood over losses and today he savored his progress.
"I'm enjoying every shot," he said. "There are more painful things than losing a match. If you win you're happy; if you lose you're unhappy, but its only for a few moments. When you're injured, you think, 'I've been working 10 years to reach a goal, and now maybe I can't walk anymore. What's winning and losing compared to this?' "
Gomez has taken advantage of a generous draw more than any player. He received a clear path to the semifinals when Lendl did not play and Becker lost. He had been beaten three times by Lendl in the quarterfinals here. In overall Grand Slam events, he's been a five-time quarterfinalist and five times in the round of 16 without a breakthrough. In 1984 he reached the quarterfinals of the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open without success.
Champion had nothing with which to threaten Gomez, gaining just two break points in the entire match and converting just one. The Frenchman thus failed in his attempt to become the first qualifier to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event since John McEnroe did so at Wimbledon in 1977 at age 17.
And Gomez got a long sought-after opportunity to add a major championship to his 19 other titles, including two this season in Barcelona and Madrid. If he wins on Sunday, he said, "My career would be over on Monday." The French Open is an almost obligatory aspiration for any clay-court specialist, and it is particularly valuable to one as frustrated as Gomez.
"I've had chances over the years," he said. "I've arrived in Paris in all different ways and forms, playing some of my best tennis and some of my worst tennis. It's the tournament I always wanted to win. I'm here and I'm ready."TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES Court Central
Steffi Graf (1), West Germany, vs. Jana Novotna (11), Czechoslovakia; Jennifer Capriati, Saddlebrook, Fla., vs. Monica Seles (2), Yugoslavia; Goran Ivanisevic, Yugoslavia-Petr Korda (16), Czechoslovakia, vs. Jim Grabb, Tucson-Patrick McEnroe (4), Oyster Bay, N.Y; Paul Haarhuis-Mark Koevermans, Netherlands, vs. Sergio Casal-Emilio Sanchez (7), Spain. Court 1
Dinu Pescariu, Romania, vs. Ivan Baron, Plantation, Fla; Tine Scheuer-Larsen-Michael Mortensen, Denmark, vs. Nicole Provis, Australia-Danie Visser (6), South Africa; Brenda Schultz-Michiel Schapers, Netherlands, vs. Natalia Medvedeva, Soviet Union-Kelly Jones (10), San Diego; Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Spain-Jorge Lozano (6), Mexico, vs. Mary Pierce, France-Craig Campbell, South Africa.