Tennis: Rios hopes damaged by freak injury

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MARCELO RIOS discovered the hard way yesterday that football is not recommended for tennis players with ambitions to be No 1. The Chilean world No 2 withdrew from the quarter-finals of the $2.45m (pounds 1.5m) Eurocard Open after straining a hip muscle in a kick-about during practice.

Pete Sampras' prospects of ending the year as No 1 for a record sixth consecutive time improved further when fellow American, Jan-Michael Gambill, retired with a back injury when 4-1 down in the first set of their quarter- final. Gambill beat Britain's Tim Henman in the third round.

The ominous part for Sampras is that today's opponent is Richard Krajicek, who has won four of their six matches, including the 1996 Wimbledon quarter- finals and in the third round here last year. "The key to Krajicek is returning his second serve as effectively as I can," said Sampras, adding, "it's been a pretty smooth week as far as my back [injury] and my matches have gone". Krajicek, who defeated Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6, 7-6, needs knee surgery. "I put more glue in it, and it's very good," the Dutchman joked.

Rios was in no mood for levity after beckoning Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov through to the semi-finals. "I was warming up this morning playing a little soccer, and I pulled a muscle trying to kick the ball too hard," Rios said. It is the Chilean's third injury within a month. He had back spasms on the way to winning the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, and he retired during the semi-finals in Lyons last week after straining a hamstring. He hopes to be fit to play in Paris next week.

Sampras, voted the best player of the last 25 years by his peers, was asked what response he expects back home in America if he ends the year as No 1 for the sixth time. "Not much," he said.

Disappointment with the American public's indifference to his achievements is one of the reasons why Sampras is not certain to be in the visiting United States team to play Britain in the first round of the Davis Cup in April next year.

"For so long people have just taken what I do and what I have done for granted," Sampras said. "It is not easy, year in, year out, to win Grand Slams and be No 1. I feel much more respected in Europe than I do in the States. Americans expect me to win every match I play."

The 27-year-old Wimbledon champion was hurt to be virtually ignored on returning from a courageous performance in the Davis Cup triumph against Russia three years ago. And he was not overwhelmed by his reception last year after confirming his position at the top and winning the Tour Championship for a fourth time. "Even in Europe it wasn't really talked about," Sampras said. "It is disappointing, because five-in-a-row is one of the toughest things to do."

Sampras does not expect the adulation Americans are showing the home- run heroes, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. "Baseball is America's pastime, and that record is something that is absolutely huge in the States," he said. "In Europe McGwire could probably walk down the street and be unnoticed, where in the States he can't go anywhere. Tennis isn't as popular as baseball in the States, and it was perfect to have McGwire and Sosa, two good guys, competing day in, day out."

But he points out that tennis is a world-wide sport. "If I am anywhere in the United States, people will stare - `is that him or not?' - and I am noticed just about everywhere."

Sampras is noticed, but scarcely mobbed, for which he is grateful. "I look at Boris [Becker] in Germany and Tim [Henman] in England. Both guys are under a microscope. In the States there are so many great athletes and so many big sports I feel I can walk down the street and not have this pop star type of image."

His ambivalence towards the Davis Cup also stems from a conviction that participation has unsettled his schedule. "I get a lot of crap back home about why I don't play, and I want to play," he said. "It would help if Davis Cup was played every two years. Asked if he intended to play against Britain, Sampras said: "At this point I really don't know."