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TENNIS

Acing the Course Weighs on Sampras

November 02, 1998|LISA DILLMAN

The way Pete Sampras is going about his lonely quest to finish 1998 ranked No. 1 for a record sixth consecutive year is a lot like a student feverishly trying to improve that B-plus to a solid A.

He is taking on extra credit--playing five consecutive weeks in Europe for the first time since 1993.

He is getting help from others in the class--Boris Becker graciously gave up his wild card in Vienna, an off-court assist leading to Sampras' title in Austria.

He is forced to get along without his beloved ESPN.

Seriously, the mad rush and the all-night cramming sessions could be taking their toll when his final examinations come around this week in Paris and later in the month at Hanover, Germany.

Sampras injured his back in Lyon, France--week No. 3 of his European journey--and withdrew in the quarterfinals. In Stuttgart, Germany, he lost in the semifinals to Richard Krajicek, one of the few players who shows no fear against Sampras. At Wimbledon, Krajicek was almost dismissive of Sampras' 1998 record.

But there is reassurance in the fact that his two biggest rivals--Marcelo Rios of Chile and Patrick Rafter--are behaving a bit strangely. The race for No. 1 is becoming intriguing and has been virtually invisible until the last few days in the United States. (ESPN has been showing the Stuttgart event.)

It has been compelling and quirky.

Who would guess that Alex Corretja of Spain would win an indoor tournament before Rafter?

Rafter has struggled with his game and motivation since winning the U.S. Open in September. He rated his own chances at finishing the year ranked No. 1 at "about 12%." After losing early in Stuttgart, Rafter even allowed for the possibility of skipping the ATP Championships in Hanover. For him, kicking back on the beach in Bermuda was sounding much better than spending another cold, rainy week in Germany.

Then there's Rios.

Rios pulled out of his semifinal match against Tommy Haas of Germany in Lyon because of a strained hamstring. So what does he do to get ready for his quarterfinal match Friday against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Stuttgart?

A little soccer-tennis, of course.

The game--kicking a tennis ball, soccer style--is the rage with the players on the tour. It is also about the quickest way to pull a leg muscle, which is what happened to Rios, who promptly injured his thigh and withdrew.

What's next in Paris for Rios? There's always a chance for some seven-on-seven soccer with some of the Spanish Armada.

CLASS ACT

The Nicest Guy in Tennis finally caught a break in Lyon with an unexpected result. Corretja had won one indoor match in his career and called his tournament victory at the Grand Prix de Tennis "a miracle."

He saved one match point in the final against Haas and qualified for the season-ending tour championships at Hanover. Typically, he tried to make Haas feel better afterward by telling him the same thing once happened to him--losing in the final after holding a match point at Palermo, Italy, in 1994.

Earlier in 1998, Corretja received praise for his gracious behavior when he lost in the French Open final to his friend and countryman, Carlos Moya.

For him, it was not a bitter, stinging loss.

"I was not disappointed," he said. "No, because it was tough for me to get into the finals. And I was not playing my best tennis. It was a good experience, even though I lost in the finals. I didn't react like, 'I had a good chance and I lost in the finals.'

"I didn't play my best tennis. I think I can play much better than this. Let's see if I can play better the next time."

His attitude has paid off with four titles on three surfaces this year. One was against Andre Agassi in Indianapolis in the summer, memorable because he was felled by an overhead blast from Agassi.

Corretja joked that it wouldn't happen again.

"It is difficult to hit me because I'm not going to the net," he said. "I'm not going too often because once I go, they hit me. So I stay back."

VENUS UPDATE

A nagging left-knee injury is limiting No. 5-ranked Venus Williams to doubles only at the upcoming event in Philadelphia. Her final singles appearance of 1998 will be at the Chase Championships in New York.

The knee has bothered her most of the year, most recently at Moscow in a semifinal loss to Mary Pierce. She finished the match, but it was the second time the knee acted up during a match against Pierce. The other time was in August at San Diego, where Williams was forced to retire in the third set.

"I just need to rest it," she said in a conference call. "I've played quite a few tournaments, more than what I've ever played in my life. I'm not worried at all. I'm just a little bit taller than most people at a younger age. And it has a lot to do with growing, my body has to catch up to my height.

"I'm not worried at all. I can play but not at the best level."

Her goal for 1999, obviously, is the No. 1 ranking.

"I'm not too far away from it, but far enough," she said. "It's definitely attainable."

DROP SHOTS

The winner of a prequalifying event this weekend at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage will receive a wild card into the main draw of an upcoming $25,000 Challenger event. The challenger tournament, which starts Nov. 16, is expected to feature Sebastien Lareau, Daniel Nestor, Alex O'Brien, Paul Goldstein and Mal Washington, among others. . . . Peggy Michel, a marketing associate for the Newsweek Champions Cup/Evert Cup events, will be inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Assn. Women's Hall of Fame on Nov. 14 at the College of William & Mary. A former tour player, Michel won doubles titles at the Australian Open in 1974 and 1975 and at Wimbledon in 1974. Her partner in those events was Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

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