-- Argentina's Gaston Gaudio is an unknown among even seasoned tennis fans. He's not the best player in his country. He's not its second or third best. In fact, Gaudio wouldn't make the cut for Argentina's four-man Davis Cup squad based on current world rankings.
But on the red clay of Roland Garros, Gaudio did his part to make Argentine tennis history Wednesday, sweeping aside Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals of the French Open.
Joining Gaudio in Friday's men's semifinals will be two of his better-known compatriots, No. 3 seed Guillermo Coria and eighth-seed David Nalbandian, who ousted the tournament's three-time champion and sentimental favorite, Gustavo Kuerten, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), in Wednesday's other singles match.
The upshot is that for the first time, Argentines will account for three of the four semifinalists in a Grand Slam tournament. And in a country that has been wracked with poverty, unemployment, corruption and a soaring crime rate in recent years, it is cause for celebration.
"They're going to be happy, for sure," said Gaudio, 25, the eldest and most improbable member of the trio.
Even more improbable, some would say, is that Britain's Tim Henman, whose serve-and-volley game is hardly suited to the slow, European clay, rounds out the foursome, having secured his spot with a straight-set victory over Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela on Tuesday.
Henman faces a tough task Friday, taking on the clay-court maestro Coria, who has yet to drop a set in the tournament.
Gaudio will face Nalbandian, a 22-year-old with a confidence bordering on arrogance, who on Wednesday became the first South American to defeat Kuerten in a Grand Slam tournament.
"I think I've shown I can play anywhere, and I might be one of the most complete players," Nalbandian said when informed that Gaudio had compared him favorably to the world No. 1, Roger Federer.
Few would have picked the unseeded Gaudio to advance so far at Roland Garros.
Unlike Coria and Nalbandian, he grew up outside the nurturing embrace of the Argentine Tennis Federation, which for a time bankrolled the development of chosen junior players. Gaudio, by and large, paid his own way. At times he was forced to withdraw from overseas tournaments because he ran out of money. Other times he was forced to stay in Europe an extra month to wait for the next tournament because he couldn't afford airfare back home.
"I'm not going to judge that," Gaudio said, asked about the effect of his early struggles. "We each followed a different path. Now we're all here."
Though he has equaled the achievements of Coria and Nalbandian at this tournament, Gaudio refuses to place himself on their level. Among the wealth of talented Argentine players, they are the best -- ranked third and 10th in the world, respectively. Gaudio is ranked 34th, which translates to seventh best in Argentina.
"They are the geniuses," Gaudio gushed about Coria and Nalbandian. "They're the Galacticos, and I am the Valencia."
(The Galacticos are the superstars of the Real Madrid soccer team. Valencia, by contrast, is the dogged Spanish squad that manages to win titles without such millionaire franchise players as David Beckham and Ronaldo.)
Still, Gaudio was more than Hewitt could handle, playing the role of brick wall to the Australian's groundstrokes. Nearly every ball that Hewitt fired at him came back. And Hewitt responded by forcing the issue, which translated to 43 unforced errors in three quick sets. Gaudio erred just 19 times.
The turning point came early, with Hewitt serving at 40-love, trailing 3-2 in the first set. He missed an easy forehand volley, and his play deteriorated from there. Hewitt was also rattled by the swirling wind, which affected his flat strokes more than it affected Gaudio's topspin ones. And Gaudio kept the pressure on, pinning Hewitt behind the baseline with deep, driving groundstrokes.
"He was too good," Hewitt said. "I tried hanging in there -- you know, trying a few different things. He's a class player on this surface."
Nalbandian was favored against Kuerten, the clay-court artist who has struggled since hip surgery in 2002. But fate seemed to be on Kuerten's side since his stunning upset of Federer in the third round.
Nalbandian claimed the first set, but the French fans roared with approval when "Guga," whom they regard as an honorary citizen, took the second set. The match was a race against time for Kuerten, who had re-injured his hip just months before. He knew he couldn't last five sets against Nalbandian, so a quick victory was essential.
Aware of his opponent's vulnerability, Nalbandian made him run, pulling him wide with cross-court groundstrokes and luring him forward with deft drop shots. Kuerten had three set points in the fourth set, but Nalbandian responded with a stunning display of shot-making to finish the match.
"He had a lot of chances," Nalbandian said. "But I fight too much at that moment, and I think that was the key."
French Open Note: Just as Sunday's men's final could be an all-Argentine affair, Saturday's women's final could feature two Russians. Argentina's Paola Suarez faces Russia's Elena Dementieva in Thursday's first semifinal, followed by Russia's Anastasia Myskina against Jennifer Capriati.