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Courier Tees Off on Sampras

Italian Open: World's No. 1 player is upset along with No. 2 Chang and No. 12 Mantilla in first round.

May 14, 1997|BUD COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ROME — Jim Courier lost to Pete Sampras on the golf course last week at Augusta National and doesn't beat Sampras very often in their meetings on the tennis courts.

But Tuesday, on the clay of Il Foro Italica, was Courier's day in the first round of the Italian Open. Courier wedged his golf buddy into the corners and clubbed him for the first time in three years, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, winning for only the fourth time in 19 matches against Sampras, ranked No. 1 in the world.

Making tipsy Tuesday even more eventful, second-ranked Michael Chang preceded Sampras to the compost pile, beaten by Hernan Gumy of Argentina, 6-3, 6-2. Never before in this 67-year-old tournament had the world's 1-2 men been so summarily dispatched.

And if that wasn't enough first-round mischief, Australian Pat Rafter, No. 35, took out 12th-ranked Felix Mantilla of Spain, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, and Australian left-hander Scotty Draper, No. 75, toppled No. 17, Russian Andrei Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3. Only Sunday, Medvedev had beaten Mantilla for the German Open title.

Most of the time when Sampras and Courier play, it's in the late rounds, but here they were reduced to first-round stuff. Why? Because Courier has plummeted to No. 24 and seemed a victim of the draw.

"It was a downer," Courier said. "You don't like to go against the No. 1 guy in the first round. But then I figured, 'Pete won't be grooved yet on clay,' and, 'OK, if I'm going to win this tournament, I have to beat him somewhere.' "

And so he did, not much to the surprise of Sampras, who said, "He's so tough on clay."

Sampras, however, is not fond of clay, and the 9,500 patrons in the stadium seats were not fond of Sampras as he bungled and bumbled his way out almost before the tournament had begun. They erupted in firestorms of derisive whistling--Italians are killer whistlers--and Sampras seemed to drop dead before their eyes.

"You hear it," Sampras said, shaking his head. "They can be tough here if you're not playing well."

Sampras was not playing well, flailing at backhands, double-faulting when he was already down in the second set.

"I got down on myself in the second set after losing the tiebreaker, where I led, 3-1," Sampras said. "I pressed. I never quit but. . . . "

Ebullient at finally nailing his buddy--Sampras' 84 on the golf course last week beat him by three strokes--Courier said, "Pete can get hot and clean you on a hard court with just his serve, but you have to be able to run on clay."

And Courier was running for all he was worth. After all, he too has heard the whistles here and was glad to leave them all to Sampras.

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