PARIS (AP) – One charismatic teen bludgeoned the ball, the other stroked it elegantly. The first showed off sculpted biceps with a sleeveless neon green shirt, the other motored around court on muscle-bulging legs.

Spain’s Rafael Nadal and France’s Richard Gasquet, 18-year-olds born 15 days and a couple hundred miles apart, proved there wasn’t a shred of hype about their talents as one followed the other with masterful center court victories at the French Open on Wednesday to set up a third-round showdown.

“Allez Gasquet!”

“Allez Nadal!”

The cheers rang out for hours as Nadal, the flashier of the two, won in straight sets just as Gasquet did before him. They, not No. 1 Roger Federer, were the talk of the tournament for the moment. The Swiss advanced easily to the third round, too, and he could meet one of the teen sensations in the semifinals – the day Nadal turns 19.

Nadal, the No. 4 seed and winner of five clay-court tournaments this year, plays a style reminiscent in some ways of a left-handed version of two-time French Open champion Jim Courier. Like Courier, Nadal wins by imposing his will on opponents, keeping them on the defensive, and playing with relentless energy, as he did on this day in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Belgium’s Xavier Malisse.

But the similarities to Courier end there. Nadal’s serve isn’t quite as authoritative but he has greater gifts in his foot speed, balance and array of shots. His deft touch on drop shots, even from behind the baseline, serves as a counterpoint to his brutal groundstrokes. His superior, two-handed backhand allows him to avoid running around balls the way Courier did. There is strategy and purpose, a clever construction of points, and a slightly rough-edged grace to Nadal’s still-developing game – along with a killer instinct that is the mark of all champions.

Federer, 43-2 this year, surely has that instinct, as he displayed in a 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-2 rout of Spain’s Nicolas Almagro. Women’s No. 1 Lindsay Davenport summoned a similar instinct when she came back, two points from defeat in the second set, to beat Chinese teenager Shuai Peng 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0.

“I definitely got lucky and escaped one today,” said Davenport, who has won each of the other majors once but never the French. Venus Williams, another multi-major champ seeking her first French title, also reached the third round, as did No. 4 Elena Dementieva, two-time runner-up Kim Clijsters and 2000 champion Mary Pierce.

Playing in his first French Open, Nadal looks like a man who’s been here before and knows what to do. In the second game of the final set, he swooped in to hit a forehand crosscourt that Malisse chased futilely into the corner. Malisse’s legs stretched into a split, he tumbled onto his back and he lay there for a 10-count. If this had been a boxing match, it would’ve been a KO.

Malisse managed to hang in, make Nadal work harder for the set, yet twice more he went down as he scrambled to reach Nadal’s punishing deep shots or drops. Nadal didn’t just play, he performed, winning his 19th straight match.

And, unlike most players who sign one or two autographs, or none, after a match, Nadal stayed on court and signed dozens for kids – along with one on a TV camera lens – before departing to more cheers.

The right-handed Gasquet was less theatrical but no less effective. Certainly he is nowhere near as accomplished as Nadal, and will go into their match Friday as the underdog even though he will be the French crowd’s favorite. Yet Gasquet has all the marks of a champion in the making.

Gasquet, who turns 19 on June 18, unleashed fluid forehands and stunningly hard, one-handed backhands in beating net-charging Peter Wessels of the Netherlands 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-1. Unfortunately for Gasquet, Nadal will not present as easy a target for passing shots as Wessels did.

“I will need to play fantastically if I want to win against Nadal because he’s a great player,” said Gasquet, who beat Federer on clay in Monte Carlo last month before losing to Nadal in the semis. Gasquet reached the final in Hamburg, then lost to Federer in a tournament that Nadal sat out because of hand blisters. “It will have to be the perfect match on my side because otherwise I will not win.”

Nadal won his only previous match on tour against Gasquet, also on clay, in Estoril, Portugal last year. Like Monte Carlo, that match also went the three-set distance.

“He’s running everywhere, all over the court,” Gasquet said of Nadal’s game. “He’s hitting very hard. He doesn’t make any errors. He doesn’t give you any points. Some players do, but he doesn’t. It’s zero mistakes.

“I can hit harder than he does, but it’s not easy to move him on the court. He’s got a very good mental state and a very good physical state. … Thank God there’s only one Nadal, because otherwise it would be difficult to play on the circuit.”

Nadal smiled when asked if he agreed that Gasquet hits the ball harder.

“OK, good,” he said.

“Clearly he’s in top shape, and it’s going to be his fans out there,” Nadal said. “It can be a positive or a negative. It’s also pressure, and you’ve got to overcome that pressure when you’re playing in front of your own public.”

Defending champion Gaston Gaudio, among many impressed by Nadal’s emergence this year, wondered about those who would dub him “Superman.”

“I’m not sure about Superman,” said Gaudio. “If you call Nadal Superman,’ what do you call Federer?”

AP-ES-05-25-05 1651EDT


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