Tennis: Becker in the mood for Stich: Italian Open

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BORIS BECKER'S rivalry with Michael Stich comes to the Italian Open for the first time today with a meeting in the quarter-finals - provided Stich feels well enough. Last night he complained of a 'cold in the back'. It could hardly be cold feet. The German compatriots played once before on a clay court, and Becker received the biggest hiding of his career.

Stich's 6-1, 6-1 victory on the slow stuff in Hamburg in 1992 hurt Becker so badly that he wondered if it was worthwhile continuing. Pride drove him on, and has been partly restored. Becker, unlike Stich, has yet to win a clay-court title, but one suspects that victory against his countryman today would be almost as sweet as going all the way to triumph on Sunday.

Becker will have to raise his game, or at least hope that Stich proves as generous with the points as was the Frenchman Cedric Pioline in the third round yesterday. Becker won, 6-3, 6-4, while Stich, the world No 2, had a sterner test against Karim Alami, the Moroccan who upset Pete Sampras in Qatar. The German won, 7-6, 6-4.

Sampras has yet to convince observers that the attacking game which brought him the Wimbledon, United States and Australian titles will work as successfully on clay. The world No 1 continued to advance by trial and error yesterday, defeating the Russian Andrei Chesnokov, 7-6, 6-3.

In the quarter-finals, Sampras plays Andrea Gaudenzi, a talented Italian, ranked No 45, a situation calculated to rekindle local passions. The atmosphere calmed considerably yesterday after Stefano Pescosolido, Wednesday's hero against Andre Agassi, fell to the Dutchman Jacco Eltingh, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Gaudenzi reached the last four at the expense of the injured Thomas Muster. The 1990 champion hurt his back and had to retire when trailing 4-1 in the opening set.

The Austrian was not the only casualty. Andrei Medvedev's clay-court season has been the talk of the tour, but yesterday, when he began to experience soreness in his right knee, which had required surgery in January, he realised the time had come to take a brief rest before the French Open.

Any lingering doubts in the Ukrainian's mind were resolved by Slava Dosedel, his third-round opponent here, who was developing the worrying habit of hitting shots past him. The Czech, ranked No 51, defeated the sixth seed, 6-1, 6-2.

Clearly, this was not the Medvedev who put paid to Dosedel in straights sets en route to winning the Monte Carlo Open last month, nor the one who triumphed in Hamburg last week. He complimented Dosedel - 'he gave me no chances, I think the score was right' - and concentrated on turning his recent gains into Grand Slam currency in Paris.

As it happens, Medvedev misses the opportunity of participating in a quarter-final match against Jim Courier, who has won the title for the past two years and recently gave the Ukrainian his blessing to acquire his travelling coach, Brad Stine.

Stine, who with Jose Higueras helped mould Courier into a Grand Slam champion (two French and two Australian titles) and world No 1, transferred to Medvedev this week.

'I would have lost in the second round here if it wasn't for Brad,' Medevedev said, referring to his recovery against the Italian Renzo Furlan. 'If I would have played for myself, I wouldn't have had the motivation to fight, but he was giving me signals off the court to continue fighting. I saw there was a person out there who wanted me to win.'

Gabriela Sabatini, the world No 5, slumped to yet another surprise defeat when she was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Ann Grossman, of the United States, in the third round of the German Open in Berlin yesterday. Last week the Argentinian lost in the first round in Rome.