Tennis: Chang passes endurance test: World No 1's assault on the clay-court season is put on hold by rain

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The Independent Online
SENTIMENT is all very well, but when the heavens decided to add tears to Martina Navratilova's farewell to the Italian Open yesterday, enough was enough. The rain delayed the start of the men's event until after 7pm, by which time the majority of the opening session's star performers had been ferried back to their lodgings for the day.

Michael Chang was still around, and stepped under the Centre Court floodlights at 7.30. The fifth seed had to work for two and a half hours to defeat the Australian Patrick Rafter, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.

It was their third meeting, Chang having won in straight sets in the Hong Kong final last month after losing in three sets at the Lipton championships in Florida in March. Those matches were on concrete. Clay tends to be a greater test of endurance.

Pete Sampras, who has not played for a month, was able to continue the habit. His match against Aaron Krickstein, an American compatriot, was among the first to be rescheduled for today. Since winning the Japan Open, his sixth title of the year, Sampras has spent time at home in Florida, preparing for an assault on the clay-court season. There is a growing feeling that the Wimbledon, United States and Australian champion could complete a set of Grand Slam titles at the forthcoming French Open.

'I've been training for about two weeks,' Sampras said. 'I've also just been hanging out, watching the NBA games on television, and just enjoying my time off. For once, I've had a normal life.'

The world No 1's last appearance on clay, the sport's slowest surface, was in the quarter-finals of the French championship last June, when he lost to Sergi Bruguera, who went on to win the title.

Krickstein will be aware of Sampras's unusual record this year: he has either hoisted trophies or lost in the opening round (to the Morrocan Karim Alami in Qatar and the Dutchman Jacco Eltingh in Philadelphia).

Sampras, in turn, needs no reminding of the 27-year-old Krickstein's reputation for resilience. Though he has won only one of his five matches against Sampras, as far back as 1989, this will be their first meeting on clay.

As a 17-year-old, Krickstein reached the final of the 1984 Italian Open, to be defeated by Andres Gomez, of Ecuador. Since then injuries have hampered the baseliner from Michigan, though two years ago he advanced to the final of the Monte Carlo Open, losing to the Austrian Thomas Muster.

Only one of Sampras's 26 singles titles was won on clay, at Kitzbuhel in 1992. Five years ago, he and his compatriot Jim Courier won the Italian Open doubles title.

Courier has won the singles title here for the past two years. He is waiting to begin his defence against Libor Nemecek, a qualifier.