Sampras survives upset bid

Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2001

PARIS -- As Pete Sampras walked off the court Tuesday at the French Open, he smiled wearily and jabbed the air with his fist. It was a modest celebration befitting a modest victory.

Sampras played for 3 hours, 15 minutes and overcame three match points before beating Cedric Kauffmann, a 25-year-old French qualifier who has never won a match on the men's tour.

Rather than jubilant, Sampras was relieved to avoid his most humiliating defeat yet at Roland Garros, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6.

''You're not going to play well every match,'' he said. ''Today was a struggle. All you can say is that you got through it and are happy to be alive.''

Any kind of victory in Paris is a rarity for Sampras, whose men's record 13 major championships include none on clay. At 29, he knows a French title would strengthen his claim as the greatest player ever, but he has won only three matches in the past four years at Roland Garros and has never reached the final.

Sampras appeared to draw the ideal opening opponent in Kauffmann, a Paris native who played college tennis at the University of Kentucky. He looks a bit like Boris Becker, but only between points.

Sampras, seeded fifth, had never seen Kauffmann play and chuckled when told the Frenchman lost a match in January to Gene Mayer, who is 44 years old.

''That makes me feel really good,'' Sampras said.

He could laugh because he won. He actually has a shot at another victory Thursday against Spaniard Galo Blanco, who is in the second round at Roland Garros for the first time since 1997.

On the second day of the tournament, two seeded men blew big leads and lost. Eighth-seeded Patrick Rafter was eliminated by fellow Australian Wayne Arthurs 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-1. No. 9 Magnus Norman, last year's runner-up, lost 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-2 to David Sanchez.

No. 2 Marat Safin and No. 3 Andre Agassi won. Agassi, the 1999 champion, earned his second clay-court win of the year by beating Thomas Johansson 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (5).

''Every day is different here,'' Agassi said. ''It's all about making sure that you are physically and mentally ready. It's not easy, but it never has been.''

There were no upsets in the women's draw, which has already lost five seeded players. No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 4 Jennifer Capriati and No. 6 Serena Williams were among those to advance. Only Williams needed three sets, beating Sarah Pitkowski 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-1.

Kauffmann, a speedy counterpuncher, showed no sign of jitters against Sampras, but said he was nervous at the start.

''I obviously think he's the greatest player of all time,'' Kauffmann said. ''During the warmup, for five minutes it was kind of blurry. I usually see him on TV. I thought it was still a TV screen. But when I won my first service game, I got settled down.''

Sampras nonetheless appeared in control and on the way to an easy win an hour into his match before the momentum suddenly changed. Serving at 6-3, 4-5, he failed to put away an easy overhead slam and Kauffmann belted it back for a winner.

The demonstrative Kauffmann spread his arms in jubilation as the crowd roared. He then smacked two more winners to take the game and the set.

''That was a big point I should have won,'' Sampras said. ''The next thing I knew it was one set all.''

A fan put it differently. ''You'd better retire, Pete,'' he shouted.

Sampras won the third set but then began to play more tentatively. He stopped coming to the net and found himself in long rallies, which usually spells his doom.

Kauffmann was glad.

''He needs to come in and play his game,'' Kauffmann said. ''He's going to say, 'Who is this guy telling me what to do?' But I had trouble when he came to the net. When he stayed back, I was more comfortable.''

Sampras double-faulted on break point to lose the first game of the final set. He sailed a forehand 10 feet long on game point to fall behind 3-1. He hit a forehand 5 feet long on game point to fall behind 4-2.

Looking tired in the 80-degree heat, Sampras hung his head but hung in there, and he started to play more aggressively.

Facing match point at 5-3, he socked a service winner. He came to the net to erase two more match points, and smacked a forehand winner to break Kauffmann's serve for 5-all. Another 15 minutes of tense tennis followed before the Frenchman pulled a forehand barely wide to give Sampras the victory.

The crowd responded with a big ovation for both players -- Kauffmann, the upstart Parisian, and Sampras, the Grand Slam tournament champion and clay-court underdog.

''Just walking the streets here, I can feel that people are really pulling for me,'' Sampras said. ''That's nice.''

In Paris, he needs all the help he can get.

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