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U.S. OPEN SPOTLIGHT / Zabaleta Is Enjoying Unexpected Success

If Mariano Zabaleta is stunned by his miracle run to

the U.S. Open quarterfinals, he's acting like a pretty cool customer.

"It's not the tournament of my life," he said.

The Argentinian headed into Flushing Meadows ranked 103rd with an 11-15

record this year. He since has mowed through No. 8 seed Sebastian Grosjean,

American Taylor Dent, 30th seed Greg Rusedski and Xavier Malisse to meet

defending champion Marat Safin today.

Zabaleta, 23, a former world No. 1 junior player, never had advanced past

the third round in a Grand Slam event.

"You know, this is my first time in a Grand Slam quarterfinal. I am so

happy because I won four matches, very important matches. I beat big guys,"

Zabaleta said. "I'm so happy, too, because I'm playing very good tennis. I

play, I think, my best tennis of the year."

For a player whose previous highlights have been beating Petr Korda at the

1998 French Open and watching Diego Maradona play soccer, Zabaleta will have

new stories to tell when he returns to his hometown of Tandil.

No one expected this. Zabaleta peaked at No. 21 last year, but a nagging

shoulder injury and deteriorating relationship with former coach Eduardo

Infantino eroded his confidence with his ranking. Zabaleta fired Infantino at

the French Open and hired former ATP Tour player Marcelo Filippini, a good

friend who has lifted Zabaleta's spirits.

"This year I didn't play very good tennis. I changed my coach. I think that

was a little probably my tennis, but now it is OK," he said.

His attitude brightened, Zabaleta improved steadily. In his only hardcourt

tune-up before the U.S. Open, he won his first two matches before losing to Tim

Henman in Indianapolis. Zabaleta's serve, which rivals that of Safin, Rusedski

and some of the game's big guns, is considered the best ever in Argentina.

Zabaleta has won at least 68 percent of points on his first serve in every

match so far.

"He didn't make any stupid mistakes," Malisse said after losing their

fourth-round match in straight sets. "He hit good forehands. I thought he

served unbelievably well, you know, very hard, always going for the first

serve, and a lot of them went in. I hit a couple returns in and he would just

hit his forehand. I think that's the best thing he did all day.

"I mean, he's got nothing to lose," Malisse said. "He hasn't had the best

year, probably, and once you win a round and you win another one, he beats

Grosjean, then gets the confidence going. It's a totally different player than

when the tournament started."

Safin has put himself on notice. "I have to take him very serious," he

said. "Very serious."



Zabaleta vs. Marat Safin (3)

New York Sports