Goran Ivanisevic was talking to himself. On the grandstand court at the U.S. Open, the three-time Wimbledon finalist was trying to decide not how he was going to play his next point but who was going to play it.

"During the match I find out" which version of Goran Ivanisevic will show up that day, the Croat explained. "There's a couple of guys there, and I have a little chat -- `Which one is going to go now?' Sometimes we fight. `I go -- no, you go.' Today in the end, it was the good one who won.

"It's me, me and me. It's fun for the crowd, but sometimes not fun for me. I get confused."

By the end of the afternoon, the "good" Ivanisevic won, defeating Finland's Ville Liukko, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-2. With Ivanisevic unseeded here for the first time in 10 years and Liukko just a qualifier, the match would usually have gone unnoticed in the wave of results on the third day of the Open.

But today Ivanisevic -- all of him -- suddenly emerged as an unlikely favorite in a men's draw missing top seed Pete Sampras and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter, who were forced to depart with injuries Tuesday.

Sampras withdrew without playing a match, the pain from a herniated disk in his lower back too much to bear. Rafter lasted until the fifth set against Cedric Pioline before retiring; an MRI exam revealed a tear in his right rotator cuff. With those two gone and No. 2 seed Andre Agassi and No. 3 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the bottom half of the draw, Ivanisevic will fight with No. 5 seed Gustavo Kuerten and No. 7 seed Todd Martin to get out of the top bracket.

He certainly has the talent to do it; he was the No. 2 seed here five years ago. He thinks he would have had a chance to come out of his half of the draw even if Sampras and Rafter had been healthy.

"It's bad for the tournament, it's bad for the tennis, that Pete is out and Patrick is out with the injury, but anybody can win this tournament," Ivanisevic said. "A Grand Slam is nobody's tournament. You can't say `This guy is going to win.' Andre and Pete are very confident; they both won big tournaments this year, but you can't ever predict who is going to win a Grand Slam."

Based on his results this summer, you wouldn't necessarily agree with Ivanisevic's line of thinking. He has advanced past the second round of only four of the 14 tournaments he has played and won just two matches in the last two months. At times his booming serve has deserted him; at other times, he has been unable slow his serve down enough to get it in play.

And with Ivanisevic, the worse results he has, the more frustrated he gets and the worse he plays the following week. Still, he has shown enough flashes of his former powerful -- if slightly bizarre -- self to make him a dangerous player here.

"I play more golf than tennis right now," he said. "It's not easy when you practice, lose [in a tournament] Monday, practice again until another Monday, lose, practice -- four, five weeks in a row. But I still have motivation. Some of the guys in front of me in the ranking, it's very disgusting. I have to get back, because that's not good."

Ivanisevic looked sharp at times today, but also struggled, especially in the third set. He said he never felt the momentum slip to Liukko, who at 5 feet 8 is almost eight inches shorter than him, although he did have a hard time controlling himself at times. After being asked about the several opportunities he squandered at the net, he simply shrugged, noting "sometimes it's the legs."

"You have to control the legs you know -- you cannot go in without the legs. You have to go to the net, but it's like -- I don't know -- five, 10 meters. It's not easy.

"I want to go in, but then I don't want to go in. Then I think `When I go in, I lose the point.' But when I stay back, it's `Why didn't you go?' It's always `Why, why, why, why didn't you choose that?' When I buy the red car, it's `Why didn't you buy the blue car?' It's always `why?' "

The other players today seemed to have much less conflicted outings, with Kafelnikov defeating Max Mirnyi, 7-5, 6-1, 6-7 (7-5), 6-3, and No. 9 seed Greg Rusedski defeating Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. No. 17 seed Felix Mantilla was ousted, 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, by Magnus Norman. The women's seeds in action, including Martina Hingis (1), Venus Williams (3) and Jana Novotna (8), all advanced in straight sets.

Hingis is going for her sixth Grand Slam title; Ivanisevic, who has come tantalizing close three times, is just hoping for his first. He dreams about it, even though he can't imagine how it would feel.

"To win would be great," he said. "It would be what this is all about. It would be great after all these years of trying hard."

And if he did win, which version of himself would get the trophy?

"We'd all get it. I'll get the trophy, and then I'll buy another two copies for whoever else is there."

U.S. Open at a Glance

Where: USTA National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

When: Through Sept. 12.

TV: USA, 11 a.m., 7:30 p.m.

Defending champions: Patrick Rafter, Lindsay Davenport.

Top seeds: Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis.

Yesterday's results: Men -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3), Russia, def. Max Mirnyi, Belarus, 7-5, 6-1, 6-7 (7-5), 6-3; Greg Rusedski (9), Britain, def. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4; Tommy Haas (14), Germany, def. Thomas Enqvist, Sweden, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6); Goran Ivanisevic, Croatia, def. Ville Liukko, Finland, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-2; Magnus Norman, Sweden, def. Felix Mantilla (17), 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Women -- Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Sarah Pitkowski, France, 6-1, 6-1; Venus Williams (3), United States, def. Anne-Gaelle Sidot, France, 6-4, 6-3; Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (10), Spain, def. Nicole Pratt, Spain, 6-2, 6-2; Barbara Schett (12), Austria, def. Asa Carlsson, Sweden, 6-4, 6-2; Dominique Van Roost (13), Belgium, def. Rita Grande, Italy, 6-3, 6-3; Amelie Mauresmo (15), France, def. Mariaan de Swardt, South Africa, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3.

Today's featured matches: Men -- Axel Pretzsch, Germany, vs. Andre Agassi (2), United States; Carlos Moya (8), Spain, vs. Nicolas Escude, France; Michael Chang, United States, vs. Arnaud Clement, France. Women -- Ruxandra Dragomir, Romania, vs. Lindsay Davenport (2), United States; Silvia Farina, Italy, vs. Monica Seles (4), United States; Mary Pierce (5), France, vs. Gala Leon Garcia, Spain; Serena Williams (7), United States, vs. Jelena Kostanic, Croatia; Jennifer Capriati, United States, vs. Seda Noorlander, Netherlands.