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TENNIS / FRENCH OPEN : Sampras Continues to Hit It Big on Clay


PARIS — Can Pete Sampras find lobs and happiness on the red clay courts of Roland Garros, long the ceremonial burial grounds of the serve-and-volley gentry?

Hey, anything's possible here in the French Open, the dirtball capital of the world, where the baseliners dream of their ultimate day on clay and the big hitters hope they can get on the grass courts before they need a psychiatrist.

The French Open began its second week Monday with Sampras in the same position as last year. That would be the quarterfinals, which so far is his best finish here.

With his usual arsenal of weapons, seeing-eye volleys and serves that need ballistic tests, Sampras eliminated Mal Washington in the fourth round Monday, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1, then directed his attention to a clay court artist who could really give him trouble, Sergi Bruguera of Spain.

It has gotten to the point that Sampras actually feels sort of comfortable on clay surfaces. For a serve-and-volley player, this is a strange feeling, indeed. Just ask Goran Ivanisevic or Boris Becker, who are reduced to head-shaking, hang-wringing nervous wrecks by the mere mention of clay.

"I still feel clay is a tough surface for me (but) anything can happen," Sampras said. "I can win the tournament . . . I'm not going to guarantee it, but I guarantee that I'm going to try my best."

The best that this place has to offer, at least in the last two years, is Jim Courier, who made a belated climb into the quarterfinals by winning a four-set slugfest against Thomas Muster of Austria.

Courier prevailed by virtue of his sonic boom forehand, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. He meets Goran Prpic of Croatia in the quarterfinals today. The winner will play the winner of the other men's quarterfinal scheduled today, Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands against Karel Novacek of the Czech Republic.

Stefan Edberg will play Andrei Medvedev on Wednesday. Edberg beat Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), despite a groin injury at the end of the first set.

Courier finished off Muster in impressive fashion. He gained match point when he crushed a forehand passing shot that kicked up dust in the shadow of the corner of the baseline. While Courier pumped his fist, Muster covered his face with his hands, apparently unable to see any more.

"If he keeps playing like that, I would say he can get through to the final," said Muster, who was asked if there is anything that would help him in next year's French Open.

"Let Courier retire," Muster said.

A year ago, Andre Agassi disposed of Sampras in straight sets in the quarterfinals. However, since Agassi isn't here this year, it's going to be up to Bruguera to try to make Sampras disappear at the same juncture.

Bruguera, who has never advanced past the fourth round of the French Open, eclipsed qualifier Fernando Meligini of Brazil in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5. Bruguera, 22, beat Sampras two weeks ago in a special clay court event in Dusseldorf, Germany.

"He is much different in Paris in Grand Slam in quarterfinals," Bruguera said. "It is very different."

At the same time, Sampras played the way he always does. He served, he volleyed, he conquered Washington for the sixth time in six meetings.

Washington was dispirited after losing the tiebreaker in the second set. When he held serve at 0-5, he raised both arms in mock triumph as the crowd roared. "He's an explosive player," said Washington, who watched Sampras serve 10 aces and not lose his serve.

All in all, it was a fairly no-nonsense performance for Sampras, who yearns to be considered an all-court player, not just a power broker whose success is confined to fast surfaces.

"This is my biggest challenge as far as my career, winning the French Open," Sampras said. "Clay is obviously a surface I didn't grow up on. Expectations are probably not very high (for me) for a lot of people, so I am just going to try to hopefully prove those people wrong."

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