-- Outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, fans watched a mammoth scoreboard and gawked in amazement. Already, three seeded players had lost at the U.S. Open on Wednesday afternoon. Now it looked like another, 17th-seeded Alicia Molik, would join them.

"Can you believe this?" said John Martin, a tennis fan from Queens. "So many upsets."

"I know," said Melissa Muller, his girlfriend. "Who are these people?"

The ones she couldn't identify? Those were the seeded players, the people who had been upset.

By seeding 32 players for the fourth consecutive year, the U.S. Open has created the phenomenon of the mini-upset. When a low seed loses, casual fans marvel at the upset -- even though it may not be much of an upset at all. Wednesday's list of mini-upsets on the men's side included the exits of No. 32 Jonas Bjorkman, No. 14 Fernando Gonzalez and No. 20 Gustavo Kuerten. Molik and No. 22 seed Magdalena Maleeva also lost.

The big names -- Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lleyton Hewitt included -- cruised easily Wednesday, leaving mini-upsets to generate most of the buzz during the third day of play.

"I don't think it's too much of an upset," said Bjorkman, who lost to Tomas Berdych in five sets. "There's not much difference between players at a certain level. Fans think it's an upset maybe, but it's just how things work in tennis."

When the U.S. Open decided to seed 32 players instead of 16 in 2001, its stated goal was to minimize early upsets. It also accomplished the opposite.

The top 16 players won't face any of the next best 16 players in the first round, so the big-name stars are safer. But, by putting a seeding number beside 16 more players, the U.S. Open created an illusion of a hierarchy that might not exist.

"It's not like definite that one player is going to beat another, just because one's seeded and the other's not," said Hewitt, who beat Wayne Ferreira in straight sets. "That's a guide. Sometimes, you never know who's actually better."

But with more seeds, fans find it easier to identify a favorite. Five years ago, an early afternoon match between Berdych of the Czech Republic and Sweden's Bjorkman would have meant nothing to fans. Now that Bjorkman's seeded No. 32, though, fans sensed an upset and cheered accordingly.

When Berdych won the third set to take a 2-1 lead, the modest crowd doubled. When the match went to a fifth set, more than 1,000 fans stood and screamed for Berdych, a player few knew just an hour earlier. The crowd sensed they were witnessing an upset, something special.

In truth, Berdych, a rising 18-year-old, beat Bjorkman the last time the two played.

Gonzalez and Kuerten hardly registered as favorites here, either. Kuerten, who lost in four sets to Kristian Pless, is a clay-court specialist who has won the French Open three times. On hard courts, though, he is average. And he has lost in the first round at the U.S. Open three times.

Gonzalez is also best on clay, where he has won two titles this year. Robin Soderling, who beat Gonzalez, played in four pre-U.S. Open hard-court events and loves the fast surface. "He had great preparation," Gonzalez said. "And that gave him an advantage."

"It all just shows that anybody can win," Bjorkman said. "A seed doesn't always mean that much."

U.S. Open Notes: Serena Williams cruised to a straight-set win in her second-round match against Lindsay Lee-Waters. But again, it was her outfit -- not her tennis -- that caught the most attention.

After wearing a denim skirt Monday, Williams sported tiny black shorts and a tiny black tank top Wednesday. For the second match in a row, she warmed up in shiny black boot sleeves. "These are my micro-mini shorts," Williams said. "I'm a performer. I just want to keep people interested.

"It's not skimpy. It's sexy." . . .

Ferreira's long grand slam career ended with a straight-sets loss to fourth-seeded Hewitt. Ferreira, who will turn 33 this month, has played in a record 54 consecutive Grand Slams, but he will retire in two weeks after a Davis Cup match.

"I'll stay a part of tennis one way or another," said Ferreira, a South African who won 16 titles, none of them grand slams. "But I wake up some morning and different things hurt. I look at it now and feel like I could carry on, but I also feel like maybe it's more important for me to be able to walk when I'm 50." . . .

Mark Philippoussis retired in the fifth set against Nikolay Davydenko because of a hip injury. He was behind two breaks in the set when he quit. "I wanted to keep going, but I was like hopping on one leg," Philippoussis said. "I couldn't even move. I could run or hit my serve."

Gustavo Kuerten was seeded No. 20, but considering he's a clay-court specialist and has never performed well in New York, his loss was hardly a surprise.