Tennis: Sampras is humbled by Schaller

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reports from Paris

During the closing stages of Pete Sampras's challenge at the French Open yesterday a white dove settled on the Centre Court, prompting an unkind comparison between the Wimbledon champion and a clay pigeon.

For Sampras, the dream of completing a collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles has ended for another year. The second seed and former world No 1 was made to look ordinary - naive at times - when losing, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, in the first round to Gilbert Schaller, an Austrian, ranked No 24, who may never win major honours but whose game is amply suited to the demands of Europe's slow clay courts.

A winner in Casablanca in March, Schaller's confidence has grown this year with wins against Sergi Bruguera, Michael Stich and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. That, coupled with Sampras's dismal fortune on clay this season, made the result less unexpected than it may seem.

The match was played in two parts over two days, having been interrupted by bad light on Tuesday night at one set all and with Sampras leading 3-1 in the third set. Though broken in the opening game in yesterday's sunshine, Sampras hung on to win the second tie-break, 7-4, only for the determined Schaller to level the contest.

Sampras broke in the opening game of the final set. Schaller immediately retaliated, and when the Austrian counter-punched himself into a 4-1 lead the match appeared won and lost. Sampras, to his credit, recovered to 4-4, the effort involved finally draining his resources.

Schaller, after holding serve to love, was presented with a match point when Sampras double-faulted for the 10th time. The 26-year-old Austrian sprinted to convert it with an emphatic cross-court backhand after Sampras had coaxed an instinctive drop shot a fraction too close to an eager opponent.

"It was just a tough match," Sampras said. "The guy is a good player. He made me stay back, I made errors, he was coming in every now and again, and he played a smart match."

While Schaller was grateful for Sampras's donation of 99 unforced errors, the Austrian expressed disappointment that the American had spent so much time on the baseline. "It would have been no problem if he had come in more often," Schaller said, "because I like to play passing shots."

Sampras and his advisers would take an opposite view, having talked all year about the need for him to be more aggressive on clay.

A disconsolate Sampras intends to fly home to Florida today to start piecing together his confidence in the three and a half weeks which remain before he attempts to win a third consecutive Wimbledon singles title. "I think this loss is probably going to sit with me for quite a while," he said.

Surprisingly, his last defeat in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament was at the All England Club in 1990, when he lost in straight sets to the South African, Christo van Rensburg.

Schaller now plays Scott Draper, a 21-year-old Australian qualifier who won in five sets against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, who is ranked 114 places above him at No 21. Another Australian qualifier, the 19-year-old Andrew Ilie, defeated Richard Krajicek, the 15th seed, in five sets to advance to the third round.

On what is traditionally children's day at Stade Roland Garros, young spectators shrieked with delight at a stirring senior debut by the 14- year-old Martina Hingis. Having won the junior singles title aged 12 and 13, the Swiss prodigy saved three match points in defeating Austria's Judith Wiesner, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Hingis, who had beaten the same opponent in straight sets in the quarter- finals of the Hamburg event a month ago, made such an error-strewn start yesterday that she soon found herself a set and a break down. Assisted by a sudden lapse in form by Wiesner, and a few lucky net-cords, she steadily worked her way back into the contest.

She broke Wiesner in the opening game of the final set, but this was merely an invitation for the Austrian to join her on a see-saw. Wiesner broke back to 3-3 and struck again to be serving for the match at 5-3.

Hingis broke back, lured Wiesner into errors on the three match points to level at 5-5, and cracked the Austrian in the next game with a superb forehand drive from one corner of the court to the other.