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Jun 1st, 2003, 07:01 AM
Relaxed Clijsters, Capriati and Venus hurtle into last 16
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PARIS (AFP) - The cream began to rise to the top at the French Open (news - web sites) on Saturday as second seed Kim Clijsters of Belgium, US seventh seed Jennifer Capriati and US third seed Venus Williams (news - web sites) all raced into the fourth round with routine successes against outclassed opponents.


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Capriati became the third American woman into the last 16 after blasting Ukraine's Julia Vakulenko 6-1, 6-2 in just 57 minutes on the Suzanne Lenglen Court to book a meeting with Nadia Petrova of Russia, who demolished Marissa Irvin of the United States 6-1, 6-1.


Capriati beat Clijsters here in a thrilling 2001 final which went to a women's record 12-10 in the final set.


This year both women are heading the opposition to defending champion Serena Williams (news - web sites) and last year's beaten finalist Venus Williams, who hammered Silvia Farina Elia of Italy 6-1, 6-2 in just 52min, sending down six aces in the process.


Venus now meets Russian 22nd seed Vera Zvonareva, who moved past Spain's Maria Sanchez Lorenzo 6-3, 6-4.


Clijsters walloped Paola Suarez of Argentina 6-2, 6-1 win in 64min on the Philippe Chatrier Centre Court.


Capriati, who like Clijsters has dropped only nine games so far, played her best match of the tournament against Grand Slam debutant Vakulenko, just 19, to join Serena, bidding here for a fifth straight Grand Slam title, and eighth seed Chanda Rubin in the next round.


The 27-year-old New Yorker sealed qualification on her third match point when her opponent hit long and then said her secret this year is to stay relaxed, a strategy which is paying a handsome dividend.


"It was kind of easy most of the way. I can still feel I'm playing well, moving well - I'm pretty much doing what I want with the ball.


"We'll see when I get really tested."


Of next opponent Petrova, Capriati noted: "She's got a big serve, she hits bigs shots off the ground. I think it's up to how I play."


Capriati is in line to face third-seeded Venus in the quarters.


Clijsters, armed with a win on outdoor clay in Rome already this season, next goes up against either Bulgarian 15th seed Magdalena Maleeva or Rita Grande of Italy for a place in the last eight before a potential meeting with US sixth seed Lindsay Davenport.


"I felt like I had to play a lot better than I did in the first few rounds. And I did," said Clijsters.


"I kept her under pressure - today I really kept it up."


The 19-year-old Belgian, seeking a fourth title of the season and 13th in all, stormed into a 4-0 lead in barely 12min on a sweltering centre court before Suarez, whose only two Tour titles came at Bogota, finally began to find her range, pulling back two games.


But Clijsters shattered any hopes doubles specialist Suarez had of taking revenge for two earlier defeats - including the third round earlier this year at Miami - by rattling off her next service game to love and wrapping up the set when the South American drove wide from the backcourt on set point.





Suarez dropped her serve for the fourth time when she drove long to give Clijsters a 2-0 advantage in the second set.

Clijsters, who banged down three aces, then squandered a trio of break points in the sixth game but still moved to 5-1 when Suarez fired hopelessly wide.

And the blonde from Bilzen, girlfriend of men's world number one Lleyton Hewitt, duly completed the job on her second match point to leave an admiring Suarez standing.

"It was difficult to keep up with her. You have to close out the games and be more aggressive. She's a really complete player," said the 26-year-old from Pergamino.

"She fights a lot and put me under loads of pressure. I think she can win the tournament - she's pretty close to the level of the Williams."