PARIS — Gustavo Kuerten's right hip hurt, plain and simple. A shot, a sprint, a lunge: Each was enough to cause pain, making his task that much tougher against a determined David Nalbandian in the French Open quarterfinals.
Hoping to somehow prolong his stay at his favorite tournament, the site of his three Grand Slam titles, Kuerten gutted it out for more than three hours Wednesday until losing to Nalbandian 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6).
"That's the toughest part — to maintain your mind ready and fresh and thinking about the game all the time," Kuerten said. "Sometimes, it's really tough to forget all the pain that you have."
It didn't help that Nalbandian was like a metronome, swatting stroke after stroke from 6 feet behind the baseline, then scrambling to get into position for the next.
Thwack, pause, thwack, pause, thwack.
Gaston Gaudio did the same against Lleyton Hewitt, like Kuerten a former No. 1 player and a major winner. Stretching points and rarely making a miscue, the unseeded Gaudio eliminated No. 12 Hewitt 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Nalbandian and Gaudio play similar styles, neither has won a Slam, and neither has won any title since 2002. Oh, and they have this in common, too: Both are from Argentina, as is No. 3 Guillermo Coria, giving the nation three semifinalists at a major for the first time.
"It's great for the country, whoever wins," Nalbandian said. "We have a 75 percent chance."
The interloper? Serve-and-volley specialist Tim Henman, the first Englishman in the French Open semifinals in 41 years. On Friday, he'll face Coria, the only man not to lose a set. Nalbandian meets Gaudio.
Never before had more than two Argentines reached a Slam's quarterfinals. Another player from Argentina, Paola Suarez, is in Thursday's women's semifinals, facing Elena Dementieva, while Jennifer Capriati plays Anastasia Myskina.
"An unbelievable week," said Gaudio, 13-5 at Roland Garros and 7-15 at other majors. "Maybe an Argentinian guy is going to take the final, and it's going to be like a dream."
Actually, it's not so unusual for one country to dominate the French Open: Spain had three semifinalists in 1998 and 2002. Nor is it rare that whoever hoists the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday will be celebrating his first major championship; he'll be the tournament's 11th first-time Slam champ in the last 16 years.
Nalbandian came the closest of the bunch, losing to Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final. He also reached the semifinals at last year's U.S. Open, then won the first two sets and held a match point before losing to Andy Roddick.
There were moments Wednesday when it looked as if another lead might slide away. Four times, Kuerten was a point from forcing a fifth set. Four times, Nalbandian rose to the occasion, including a spectacular cross-court forehand winner when Kuerten was serving at 5-4.
With wind kicking dust off the court into the players' eyes, Nalbandian broke there, and again when Kuerten served for the set at 6-5. In the tiebreaker, Kuerten led 5-2, but Nalbandian produced a forehand on the line, a service winner, and a backhand to the corner.
"It escaped from my hands," said Kuerten, whose first tour title came at the 1997 French Open, and he added victories here in 2000-01. "But maybe 80 or 90 percent of this was because of his effort, and not my fault."
As always in Paris, the man known as Guga received tremendous crowd support. One group broke the monotony of changeovers by singing, "Ole, ole, ole, o-la, Gu-ga, Gu-ga!"
Neither that, nor painkilling medicine, nor three visits from a trainer could help his right hip. Kuerten, 27, has never been the same player since arthroscopic surgery in February 2002, and it's fair to wonder how much longer he'll compete with the best.
Seeded 28th, he needed five sets just to get out of the first round against a qualifier ranked 130th. He summoned the will and some brilliant shotmaking to upset No. 1 Roger Federer in the third round, but Kuerten acknowledged he didn't have much left.
"He made me run a lot. I really suffered," Kuerten said. "Right now, I don't know what's going to happen if I had to play another match."
Gaudio, of course, is thrilled to still be around. He considered quitting the sport when finances were tight during his early years on tour.
"Sometimes, there was no money to travel," said Gaudio, 25. "Sometimes you had to stay in Europe for an extra month to wait for the next tournament. We couldn't go back home because we couldn't pay the airfare."
Against Hewitt, the consummate baseline scrambler, Gaudio played patiently. He had 19 unforced errors to Hewitt's 43 and showed he can mix things up, winning 20 of 21 points at the net.
Gaudio finished the match with blood trickling down his right shin from a final-set tumble.
"He was too good," Hewitt said. "He's very confident at the moment, especially on this surface, and his movements are as good as anyone on this surface."
As good as Nalbandian, for example?