Tennis: Courier able to break the mould on clay: Former champion ends Sampras' quest for fourth grand slam title in a row at French Open

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The Independent Online
AS THE sun finally began to radiate here yesterday, Pete Sampras's hopes of adding the French Open to his collection of Wimbledon, United States and Australian titles turned into a mirage on the red clay, a grand illusion.

The world champion was decisively beaten by his American compatriot, Jim Courier, who feels more at home on the sport's slowest surface and demonstrated the fact by reversing the result of last July's Wimbledon final.

Courier won 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in 3hr 28min to advance to a semi-final against the defending champion, Sergi Bruguera, who denied him a third consecutive French title in last year's final.

In the other quarter-final in the top half of the draw yesterday, Bruguera defeated the Ukrainian, Andrei Medvedev 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 in what was a virtual re-run of last year's semi-final in terms of the ease of the Spaniard's victory.

Courier, only the fourth player to beat Sampras this year, had lost 10 of their previous 12 matches. Crucially, this was was their first meeting on clay. As Sampras feared, against Courier the surface nullified the benefits his attacking game reaps on faster courts.

Sampras agreed he did not help his cause by forsaking his natural style and attempting to out-rally Courier from the baseline. 'If I had to do it again, which obviously I can't do, I'd serve and volley more,' he said. 'It's disappointing.'

Double-faulting to lose his serve in the third game of the opening set, Sampras began to regard his rackets with suspicion, as if they were part of a conspiracy to deny him a place in history as the first to win the four Grand Slam championships on three distinct surfaces.

Several were dispatched for restringing. 'They were all brand new, and this was the first day it was really hot and dry,' he said. 'I felt the stringing tension was too low and soft and I was having a hard time controlling the ball, but that's not an excuse by any means.'

Courier might have made the contest even shorter had he converted either of two break points for a 4-1 lead in the second set, a situation calculated to complete Sampras's disorientation. He recovered and broke Courier three times to put himself into the match, albeit after double-faulting to lose his first opportunity to take the set at 5-3.

Having saved a break point in the second game of the third set, Courier regained control, breaking in the ninth game after Sampras had double-faulted on game point. 'Even if my game went off at times,' Courier said, 'I came back to do what I was trying to do: move him around a little bit and mix up the play a lot.'

He mixed it up enough to end a dream. 'Certainly it would have been a great opportunity for Pete to win four in a row,' he said. 'I think he knows, and we all know here, that it wouldn't have been a real Grand Slam. But it would have been a a hell of an accomplishment, don't get me wrong.'

Mary Pierce also has a dream: to defeat Steffi Graf in the semi-finals and win the championship of her adopted country. The 19-year-old from Montreal could scarcely have done better than advance through five matches for the loss of only six games, a record for the French championships in the open era.

The 12th seed realises, however, that Graf could pose a greater challenge than her previous opponents - Nicole Provis, Maria Bentivoglio, Lori McNeil, Amanda Coetzer and Petra Ritter - put together. Last time they met, at the United States Open, Graf beat her 6-1, 6-0.

In defeating Ritter in the quarter- finals yesterday 6-0, 6-2 Pierce had her serve broken and was guilty of 26 unforced errors. Her one consolation is that Graf was broken when serving for the opening set against Ines Gorrochategui and contributed 24 unforced errors to the 53 in the match, which the defending champion won 6-4, 6-1.

At one stage, the trainer was called to the court to put drops in Graf's eyes, and it is possible that an allergy accounted for her inability to cope better, though it must be added that the Argentinian hit some impressive shots.

The other semi-final is one for the castanets: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who defeated France's Julie Halard 6-1, 7-6 and Conchita Martinez, who beat Germany's Sabine Hack 2-6, 6-0, 6-2.

Results, page 33

(Photograph omitted)

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