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Red Clay Aces Out Sampras in First Round

Tennis: Five-set drama at French Open fizzles when he double-faults to fall to Philippoussis.


PARIS — There would be no rescue by the weather (Monday's ominous clouds refused to release any rain) and no random knee injury suffered by his opponent at a crucial juncture (at '99 Wimbledon).

So, Pete Sampras gamely pressed on, slipping and sliding on his unnatural habitat, the red clay of Roland Garros. His socks were dirty. Same with his shorts.

He was doing what everyone had been telling him about clay, serving and volleying with increased regularity. Instead of impersonating a Spaniard or South American, he got off the baseline and turned back into Pete Sampras.

If this is all starting to sound too good to be true, well, it is.

If one moment can explain his relationship with the French Open, it happened at the end of a stirring five-set, first-round match against Mark Philippoussis of Australia: Sampras double-faulted on match point, firing his second serve long.

And so, Philippoussis, with only one clay-court victory behind him this year, defeated the second-seeded Sampras, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 8-6, in 3 hours 39 minutes. It is the second time in 11 appearances here Sampras has lost in the first round. He has won only two matches at the French Open in the last three years.

At least he didn't lose to Ramon Delgado this time.

Or was that Pedro Delgado?

A glum Sampras said all the right things in the interview room afterward, but his body language was telling. He hunched forward, speaking of "disappointment" and "frustration." Sampras was wearing a black Laker cap--suiting his mood?--and luckily no one suggested the potential upside of this loss, getting back to L.A. in time for Game 5.

Yeah, that would have been an unforced error.

For someone who is considered perhaps the greatest player in the game, Sampras has endured his share of painful moments in the last year--his back injury before the '99 U.S. Open, his injury and five-set loss to Andre Agassi in the Australian Open semifinals in January and now, the fallout after another early French Open loss.

"The years are going," said Sampras, who turns 29 in August. "I see myself playing this game for a lot of years, but certainly every year the French goes by and I don't win here, it's one opportunity missed.

"Like I said, I'll be back next year and every year I'm playing this game. The last couple of years, I haven't even gotten into the second week. It's a little discouraging."

The draw was hardly forgiving. Philippoussis versus Sampras sounded more like a Wimbledon final, not the first round of the French Open.

Sampras and Philippoussis have had an interesting series of matches. Philippoussis, a finalist at the U.S. Open in 1998, has won only three times in 10 meetings. One victory came when Sampras retired with a leg injury in 1997, and more recently, Philippoussis defaulted in the quarterfinals against Sampras at Wimbledon with torn cartilage in his left knee last year. This was their second meeting on clay.

"I knew inside of me that I was capable of playing some good tennis on clay," said Philippoussis, who had 23 aces. "It hasn't been a great clay-court season for me at all. I just stayed positive. This is the French Open. This is big, so I just gave it my all out there."

Sampras did likewise. He showed more emotion than he usually does in Paris and the crowd responded with appreciation, wanting him to hang around for a few more days.

In the fifth set, Sampras wavered first, losing his serve in the sixth game, double-faulting on break point. But he broke back in the very next game, at 30, firing a forehand passing shot down the line. At 6-6, Sampras reportedly had to check with the chair umpire as to whether a tiebreaker is played here in the fifth.

"I felt like he was still serving very big; he was going to be tough to break again," Sampras said.

Ahead 7-6 in the fifth, Philippoussis went for broke with Sampras serving and won the final four points, two of them on Sampras errors, a Philippoussis passing shot and the final double fault by Sampras.

"The court is playing really quick," said Sampras, who had 53 unforced errors. "If I could have gotten through this match, I think I would have been pretty tough to beat these next couple of weeks."

So, does he think he is cursed on clay? "Well, my career is not over yet," he said.

But the window of opportunity is starting to slide shut. The six-time Wimbledon champion and winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles still is on that yearly clay quest.

"In a perfect world, a perfect career, you'd like to win all the majors, do everything in the game," he said. "I have a very high bar that I've raised. It kind of would be disappointing if I would not win it. But life will go on. It's certainly nothing to be ashamed of, not winning here."

French Open Notes

One other seeded man exited on the first day. Jan-Michael Gambill defeated No. 8 Nicolas Kiefer of Germany, 6-3, 7-5, 6-1. Kiefer, who has been out for several weeks because of ankle injury, said he was rusty. Fourth-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia defeated Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, in 3 hours 11 minutes.



The French Open remains the only Grand Slam singles title that has eluded Pete Sampras. His year-by-year finishes:

Year Round

2000: First

1999: Second

1998: Second

1997: Third

1996: Semifinal

1995: First

1994: Quarterfinal

1993: Quarterfinal

1992: Quarterfinal

1991: Second


Overall: 22-9

Earnings: $449,307




Unlike last year, the crowd was easy on Martina Hingis.

Page 9



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