Sampras' concern for coach's health : TENNIS

Pete Sampras's defence of the Australian Open title has been overshadowed by concern for the health of his coach, Tim Gullikson, who was taken to hospital shortly after they practised together yesterday.

The 43-year-old Gullikson was assisted from the locker room 90 minutes before Sampras played his third round match against Lars Jonsson, of Sweden. The world No 1 won in straight sets.

Gullikson's symptoms of dizziness and slurred speech were similar to those when he suffered two minor strokes towards the end of last year.

He was taken ill during the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last month and was found to have a blood clot in the head and a faulty heart valve, a condition related to a fainting episode during the Stockholm Open in October.

Sampras, 23, has won four Grand Slam titles and become the sport's leading man since hiring Gullikson three years ago. Yesterday, he endeavoured to put the coach's misfortune to the back of his mind until he had played his match and could visit the hospital.

"I just had to block it out and not worry about it, just concentrate on my tennis and what I had to do and try not to think about Tim," Sampras said. "I realise he's in good hands, and I've played this game for a lot of years. It's always nice to have that support, but when it's not there I've been around long enough to handle it. I thought I handled it pretty well. I thought I played as well as I could.''

A dramatic tranformation in the weather overnight caused the Centre Court roof to be closed, creating the impression of a return to the winter indoor season. The sense of deja vu was heightened for Sampras when it was confirmed that his fourth-round opponent would be Magnus Larsson, the Swede who defeated him in the final of the Grand Slam Cup.

Larsson advanced without hitting a ball yesterday, a high temperature causing his compatriot, Thomas Enqvist, to withdraw from their third-round match.

It will be the fifth time in four months that Larsson has encountered Sampras, the American having won all but the match in Munich. While giving the Swede credit - "he outplayed me" - Sampras said he felt "sore and sluggish" after a gruelling five-set semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic the previous day.

Larsson recalled having played "dream tennis" in Munich, and said he intended to "mix it up as much as possible again and not play too much to his backhand.''

Coincidentally, Sampras first played Larsson in the quarter-finals here at Flinders Park last year, winning, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6.

Michael Stich, the No 7 seed, dropped out of Sampras's quarter of the draw yesterday, bamboozled by Karel Novacek's tactical nous and denied a fourth-round match against Jim Courier.

Novacek won, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, reversing a straight-sets defeat by Stich in the semi-finals of last year's United States Open by adopting an attacking style. Stich's confidence evaporated when the mistakes he expected from the Czech failed to materialise.

The 1991 Wimbledon champion created only two break points, both in the opening set, and failed to convert either of them. While not blaming the roof for his defeat, Stich considered that playing indoors put him at a disadvantage. "It's supposed to be an outdoor tournament, and that's what it should be.''

That prompted the annual rainy day debate down here, Michael Chang taking a philosophical view: "As long as it's a tennis court, put up a net and give me some balls and an opponent to play, and it's good enough for me."

Disadvantage, in Chang's case, is defined as working in a land of giants. It should come as a welcome change in the fourth round to find himself playing an opponent two inches shorter: the Frenchman Olivier Delaitre, 5ft 7in.

In the women's singles, Conchita Martinez was given a difficult time by Kristie Boogert, a bold 21-year-old from Rotterdam. The Wimbledon champion won, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, and in the fourth round will face Irina Spirlea, a Romanian prospect.

There could hardly have been a greater contrast to the calm under the Centre Court roof than the cold blustery conditions on Court No 2, where the tournament bade adieu to Madagascar's finest, Dally Randriantefy.

Mary Pierce's pounding forehand found the lines often enough to see Dally off, 6-3, 6-3, though the No 4 seed came closer to being edged into a third set than the score suggests. The impressive 17-year-old qualifier recovered after losing the first four games and contesting every point.

Randriantefy's first experience of Grand Slam competition raised her world ranking by 100 places to 144. She won $13,500 (£9,000) - plus $860 bonus from her father, Max, who gives her $10 for every WTA Tour computer point gained.

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