Tennis: Sampras back on a sure footing: The world No 1 makes a tentative start to his European clay court campaign in Rome while at home Britain's women serve up a rare victory

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS, the world No 1, versus Renzo Furlan, the leading Italian, was the appetiser on the opening day of the men's tournament at the 50th Italian championships. Furlan came close to pushing the match into a third set before the Californian asserted himself to win, 6-3, 7-6.

An earlier American, Bill Tilden, won the inaugural tournament in Milan in 1930 and that year went on to win his third and last Wimbledon title at the age of 37. Tilden, for all his greatness, failed to add the French championship, unable to outlast Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet in finals on the red clay of Paris.

Though Sampras has the style to win Wimbledon, he, too, may struggle to triumph at the French, as have successive generations of predominantly attacking players since the Rod Laver era. For the moment, Sampras is simply relieved to be playing on a more comfortable surface than the concrete courts which damaged his shins early this year.

Sampras set foot on a European court yesterday for the first time since overtaking his compatriot, Jim Courier, as the No 1 during last month's Japan Open. He was a semi-finalist in Atlanta competing on American green clay, and practised on similar courts in Tampa last week.

Furlan, ranked No 50 and a specialist on clay, wasoutclassed and unnerved in the opening set, which lasted 35 minutes, but he recovered to make Sampras work for victory.

Broken for 5-4 in the second set, Furlan not only levelled at 5-5 when Sampras served for the match but also created a set point in the American's next service game. The opportunity was lost when he was forced to stretch for a backhand, the ball landing in the net. Sampras won the tie-break 7-3.

Sampras, who in 1990 became the youngest male to win the US Open aged 19, has not won a Grand Slam title since. He was the runner-up to Stefan Edberg in New York last September, and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in July.

Goran Ivanisevic ended Sampras's progress at the All England Club before losing to Andre Agassi in the final, but the Croat has been having such a difficult time this year that at one stage he said he would struggle on the women's tour.

He arrived in Rome too late to put that to the test, Conchita Martinez having won the women's title on Sunday, but he was in a more optimistic mood after winning his opening match against Jaime Oncins, of Brazil, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3.

Ivanisevic, the fourth seed, had won only one previous match since late February, against Olivier Delaitre, of France, on a clay court in Nice. A combination of injuries and loss of confidence has troubled him since a stress fracture of a foot caused him to withdraw on the eve of the Australian Open in January.

Oncins, who at 6ft 4in is as lofty as his opponent, was noted for several events last year. His resilient performances helped take Brazil to their first World Group semi-final in the Davis Cup; he recovered a two-set deficit to eliminate Ivan lendl in the second round of the French Open; he had a walk-on part as the opponent at Jimmy Connors' 40th birthday party in the first round of the US Open.

In February this year, on a carpet court in San Francisco, Oncins had the dubious distinction of becoming the first player to drop a set to Bjorn Borg since the Swede decided to make a comeback on the ATP Tour in 1991.

It appeared that Ivanisevic would have a comfortable victory when he broke for 4-3 in the second set, but a characteristic lapse of concentration cost him his own serve, to love, in the next game. Oncins won the subsequent tie-break, 7-5. He also broke Ivanisevic in the final set, but by then the Croatian was leading, 4-0, and even the net-cord was proving kindly disposed towards his rehabilitation.