French flop redux: Sampras loses in first round in Paris

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

PARIS -- Muttering, slouching, slamming his racket to the ground and smacking a ball into the stands, Pete Sampras was in typical French Open form Monday.

Which is to say: He was out of sorts for just about the entire match and, yet again, quickly out of the only Grand Slam tournament he's never won.

When the last of his 93 unforced errors fell, Sampras had lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) to Italian journeyman Andrea Gaudenzi and was eliminated at Roland Garros in his opening match for the second time in three years.

On a day when three rain interruptions blocked play across the tournament for a total of 3 1/2 hours and a constant breeze made balls dance oddly, some other top players had lapses, too. But top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt and three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten still managed to win in straight sets, as did Venus Williams.

Unlike on grass or hard courts, where his stinging serves and volleys have been so superior for so many years and allow him to pull out victories even when he's not as his sharpest, Sampras can't conjure that extra oomph on the slower clay.

And now, at age 30, he's burdened with a 28-tournament title drought that dates to July 2000, when he won Wimbledon for a record 13th Grand Slam championship.

''As you get a little bit older, as Slams go by, it's pretty difficult to get over it,'' said Sampras, his words deflated. ''It's not like I'm 20 and I have the next 10 years to have an opportunity. Each time one goes by, it's one that you have to wait a year to come back and try to do it.''

He had his spots against the 28-year-old Gaudenzi, who only once has been as far as the fourth round of a major -- back in 1994 -- and is ranked 69th.

But Sampras frittered away 14 break points, put in a pedestrian 57 percent of his first serves, and managed 18 winners all day. Gaudenzi, meanwhile, whistled 19 passing shots by Sampras.

Most tellingly, when Sampras served for the fourth set at 5-4, he lost the game by misfiring one of his trademark overhead smashes and sending Gaudenzi's weak backhand stab lob into the bottom of the net. The ball bounced back to Sampras and he kicked it over the net.

There were other signs of just how frustrating -- a word he used about a dozen times in 10 minutes to describe his mood -- a day it was for someone who leads active players in titles (63), match wins (749) and weeks at No. 1 (a record 286).

The chair umpire warned Sampras for ball abuse when he hit one 20 feet up after sending a forehand wide at 3-3 in the fourth set. At another juncture, Sampras threw his racket to the ground with a thud; later, he tossed it in the air like a baton twirler, except he didn't try to catch it.

After many miscues, he would shuffle back to the baseline, talking to himself or hitting his leg with the racket or drooping his head and shoulders.

It's about as uncomfortable and angrily animated as one sees Sampras, who usually is the Al Gore of tennis.

''What a blah feeling,'' Sampras said. ''When you're No. 1 in the world, winning becomes easy. When you're not dominating and you're struggling a little bit over the course of the year, you can't expect to come to Paris and win it.''

Hewitt, Kuerten and Williams all came here with nagging injury worries and none sparkled Monday. Hewitt beat Andre Sa of Brazil 7-5, 6-4, 7-5, Kuerten got past Ivo Heuberger of Switzerland 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, and Williams -- seeded No. 2 among women -- eliminated Bianka Lamade of Germany 6-3, 6-3.

Even beleaguered Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson looked good, dispatching clay-court specialist Franco Squillari 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-2 just a few days after worrying aloud about burnout.

Besides Sampras, the only seeded player to lose Monday was No. 8 Sandrine Testud, who was taken out by Paola Suarez of Argentina 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Nearly two dozen matches were moved to Tuesday because of the rain.

Gaudenzi was excited when he saw he would play Sampras. Not, mind you, because he harbored thoughts of pulling an upset (after all, he was 0-3 against the American before Monday). Nope, he just wanted to be in the spotlight, especially after right shoulder surgery curtailed a promising career and forced him to the Challenger Circuit in 2000.

''I have to be honest,'' Gaudenzi said, ''I was quite happy because it's been a few years since I played on Center Court -- and not Court 13.''

Sampras isn't the player he used to be; his No. 12 ranking was his lowest heading to Paris since his 1989 debut and he's just 15-12 in matches this year.

Still, this French Open flop might rank among the most galling to him because he made changes in hopes of improving on clay.

Sampras hired a new coach in February (Jose Higueras, a clay-court expert who twice made the semifinals as a player and coached Michael Chang and Jim Courier to titles here) and entered three European clay events for preparation (he lost in the first rounds in Rome and Hamburg, though, and went 1-2 in the World Team Championship in Dusseldorf).

''I've done everything that I needed to do,'' said Sampras, whose best showing at the French Open was reaching the 1996 semifinals and who has lost in the second round or earlier each of the past five years.

''It's pretty disappointing to even think about much of anything expect what happened out there. I'm not thinking about Wimbledon, I'm not thinking about next year, I'm just thinking about all the time and effort I put into this tournament. You know, once again, I came up with nothing to show for it.''

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