Tennis: Clay torture numbs Sampras Sampras numbed by clay torture

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AFTER MAKING his customary hangdog exit from the French Open yesterday, acknowledging that the one singles title missing from his Grand Slam collection is further away than ever, Pete Sampras vowed to return, if only for more torture on the clay.

"I'm never going to give up on it, but every year that goes, it gets more difficult," the 27-year-old Wimbledon champion said, having lost in the second round for the second time consecutively, this time to the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3. "You're here, you're prepared, you're mentally up for it, and you don't play well, and it's a numb feeling."

Medvedev, whose career has been handicapped by injuries and erratic form since he was a semi-finalist here in 1993, started the event ranked No 100 in the world. Sampras needed to advance to the quarter-finals in order to regain his world No 1 ranking from the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, but that never looked likely after he struggled through a five-set marathon against Juan Antonio Marin, of Costa Rico, in the opening round.

Sampras did not offer that draining experience as a reason for his poor performance yesterday. "Physically I felt fine," he said. "I was very fresh, and could have gone five [sets] if I had to. But I'm struggling to find my game. I'm sitting here just after losing thinking, `What happened? What could I have done strategy-wise?'"

Plainly, Sampras is not match tough, having played only 14 tournament matches since clinching the world No 1 ranking for a sixth consecutive year last November. Simply, he speaks a lot about relying on his own serve- volley style on clay without always carrying it through.

As Medvedev said, having capitalised on the American's 61 unforced errors: "I really cannot be unbelievably proud of what I've done. I beat a great player, but he wasn't playing his great tennis.

"We could spend hours talking about what I think that Pete could do better on clay. But when he has been winning the break points on hard courts, indoors, let's say on any surface but clay, with the aces, with coming in and making the quick points, why shouldn't he try it on clay? I mean, that's a quick clay, the balls are relatively fast. I think he has a complete right to do it. I don't think that he's better off playing longer points, playing a lot of top-spin and waiting for his forehand to come."

Sampras was so disappointed that he found it hard to take comfort in thoughts about the friendlier grass-court season leading up to Wimbledon, although he is likely to take the wild card reserved for him at the Stella Artois Championships, at London's Queen's Club, which starts a week next Monday.

The home spectators were disappointed to lose Mary Pierce, the French No 1, so soon after seeing Amelie Mauresmo soundly beaten by Martina Hingis, the world No 1, on Wednesday. Pierce, who was defeated by Conchita Martinez, the former Wimbledon champion, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Pierce, who was suffering heat exhaustion, had to leave the court at one point. Martinez took the opportunity to catch up on entries in her diary.

There were two particularly encouraging performances in the women's singles. Jennifer Capriati, the prodigy whose career left the rails, advanced to the third round, defeating an American compatriot, Lilia Osterloh, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, showing signs of a revival at the advanced age of 22. And Justine Henin, a 16-year-old Belgian, gave Lindsay Davenport a difficult time before the American world No 2 emerged with a 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory.

Results, Digest,

Photograph, page 28