A 6-4, 6-3 first-round defeat by the Frenchman Fabrice Santoro not only cost the Wimbledon champion his Italian Open title but also ruined his preparations for the next Grand Slam event, the French Championships, which start a week on Monday.
Jim Courier has also known better days. The Italian champion of 1992 and 1993 was eliminated by Thierry Guardiola, a French qualifier ranked No 179 in the world. Courier, the ninth seed, had a match point at 6-5 before falling, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6.
A year ago Sampras was transported to Paris on the euphoria of a superb victory against Boris Becker in the final here. Whistles and jeers greeted his performance yesterday. "The crowd was just as disappointed as I am," he said.
Sampras, in common with another American compatriot, Andre Agassi, who supplanted him as the world No 1 a month ago, requires the French title to complete a set of the four Grand Slam men's singles championships, a feat achieved by only Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson.
The slow French clay cramped Sampras's attacking style against Courier in the quarter-finals last year, and his plans to spend more time adjusting to the surface have been wrecked by poor form and injury.
Excluding a Davis Cup tie in Palermo last month, Sampras has lost four of his seven matches in Europe. He started with a defeat in Barcelona by Oliver Gross, an unsung German, and then returned to Florida after a twisted ankle caused him to retire when leading the Dutchman Paul Haarhuis, 6-4, 1-1, in his opening match in Monte Carlo.
After being heartened by last week's progress in Hamburg, where he advanced to the semi-finals, Sampras wondered which way to turn after defeat yesterday. "I really don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I could stay here and practise, which I'm not sure I want to do, or I could go home. Right now I'm on the fence.''
No amount of practice in the coming 12 days is likely to restore the confidence which has been missing from Sampras's play since a victory against Agassi on the rubberised concrete of Indian Wells, California, in March; his only title of the year.
Having expressed a determination to be more aggressive on the clay this year, he remains tentative. Santoro, ranked No 39, showed the greater inclination to approach the net yesterday.
"I'm just not serving too well," Sampras said. "I felt a little uneasy today, and the way I played was pretty poor." Though he recovered from 0-2 in both sets, a total of 42 unforced errors, including five double- faults, tells a sorry tale.
For all that, Sampras's display was almost masterful compared to a depressing performance by Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The sixth-seeded Russian was defeated, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, by Corrado Borroni, a 22-year-old Italian qualifier playing his first match in a fully fledged ATP Tour event.
Appearing like some throw-back to Guillermo Vilas, with his bandana and dark shoulder-length hair, Borroni was able to extend the image to his strokes largely because of Kafelnikov's shortcomings. It was the Russian's third consecutive first-round defeat; this one against the 23rd highest ranked player in Italy (No 411 in the world).
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