PARIS (AP) – Shouts of bravo mingled with expressions of surprise as unseeded Mariano Puerta, an Argentine back from a nine-month drug suspension, and Nikolay Davydenko, a Russian on the rise, set up an unlikely French Open semifinal.

After nearly seven hours of tennis in a pair of five-set marathons Wednesday, Puerta and Davydenko emerged the weary winners who will face each other Friday for a spot in the final against the winner of the more celebrated semifinal between No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 4 Rafael Nadal.

Puerta outlasted No. 9 compatriot Guillermo Canas, 6-2, 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a 3-hour, 35-minute match that was like an intense Argentine Davis Cup practice. The No. 12-seeded Davydenko gave himself a birthday present the day before he turns 24 by edging No. 15 Tommy Robredo 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in 3 hours, 18 minutes.

The left-handed Puerta and right-handed Canas, who have known each other since they were children playing in the same club, engaged in long baseline rallies of up to 30 shots on a sun-splashed afternoon at Roland Garros. Though they weren’t headliners or local favorites, the Argentines frequently drew sustained cheers and bravos from the fans who filled the center court stands.

The final game epitomized the match, each player stretching to make impossible shots. After saving one match point with Puerta serving at 5-4, 40-15, Canas saved another with brilliant play. Canas lunged to scoop up a forehand that Puerta angled crosscourt with a backhand. Canas barely retrieved that, only to see Puerta come in with what looked like a winning forehand. Yet Canas caught up to that, too, and drilled it crosscourt for a winner.

Canas produced a superb forehand pass to send the game to deuce. But after floating a forehand long under pressure from Puerta that set up a third match point, Canas finally succumbed when a forehand hit the net cord and popped back on his side.

The relief on Puerta’s face reflected not only his happiness in getting through to his first Grand Slam semifinal after nine years on the tour – he was runner-up in the French boys’ tournament 10 years ago – but his satisfaction in putting the troubles of the past year and a half behind him.

This was only his third tour event since returning from a suspension for testing positive for clenbuterol, a long-banned drug with anabolic properties that can build muscles and trim fat. An investigative panel determined that a doctor prescribed the drug to Puerta to treat an acute asthma attack.

“It’s not used in the United States or Europe anymore for asthma, but it’s still used in Latin America,” said World Anti-Doping Agency consultant Dr. Gary Wadler. “But athletes know it’s strictly prohibited. They have a card with that and all other banned drugs listed. It comes down to strict liability. The athlete bears the responsibility for anything he puts in his body.”

Puerta’s positive test, announced in January 2004, led to a suspension retroactive to October 2003. He had to forfeit some prize money and points.

“It was a hard time to go through,” Puerta said. “It’s very strange not to be allowed to play tennis. … When you go through a rough period, it just makes you become stronger. Today I can tell you I feel very strong. Everything I went through helps me feel calmer, and it’s helped me mature and overcome difficult moments.”

Puerta has been surging in clay tournaments, winning 22 of 30 matches this year, and has climbed back from a low of No. 440 in the rankings last August to stand at No. 37 at the start of the French.

His performance here could help vault him closer to his best-ever ranking of No. 18 five years ago.

Neither Puerta nor Davydenko has ever gone so far in a Grand Slam event. Puerta’s best showing in a major before this was getting to the third round of the French in 200O. Davydenko also hadn’t gone past the third round of a major until he reached the quarters of the Australian Open in January, where he retired with an injury in the third set against Andy Roddick.

Now the Russian is into the semis at Roland Garros with 10 consecutive wins, including a fourth-round upset of last year’s runner-up, Guillermo Coria.

“The key, it was fighting, fighting,” Davydenko said of his struggle past Robredo. “Like try to fight every ball. He was really difficult to play. Every point I was feeling tired, tired.”


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