Tennis: Sampras kept waiting as Safin steals spotlight

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THE MAIN event on the Centre Court at the Paris Indoor Championships yesterday was billed as a big hello to the great Pete Sampras, who was scheduled to play his first match in a tournament since 20 August.

Unfortunately, the order of play committee scheduled Sampras's match as the last of six, by which time most self-respecting citizens were long abed.

"We always try to put the most interesting two matches of the day on Centre Court in the evening," a spokesman said. "We do it for the public."

The order of play committee estimated that the best-of-three matches would be completed, on average, in an hour-and-a- half. The trouble was that the first match of the day, at noon, in which the Dutchman, Sjeng Schalken defeated Arnaud Clement, of France, lasted nearly three hours. Sweden's Thomas Enqvist then took more than two hours to shake off another Frenchman, Sebastien Grosjean.

Marat Safin, of Russia, took nearly two hours to complete the surprise of the day, defeating Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian No 5 seed, 7-6, 3- 6, 7-6. Safin, ranked No 34, hit 16 aces, although some of his most crucial points were achieved after hard-fought rallies.

By now, the order of play stating that Sampras's match against Francisco Clavet, of Spain, would not be before 8.30pm, was being treated as a joke. Did they mean 8-30am?

The organisers, having made their bed, decided they had to lie in it. Nobody was prepared to change the schedule.

There was always a chance that sprint finishes, mishaps, or injuries would speed events. There were two withdrawals because of injury, neither of which made a difference to the timing of the day's events.

Magnus Larsson, of Sweden, had a stiff neck and was unable to play his first-round match against the South African, Wayne Ferreira, on Court No 1. Larsson was replaced by Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, a "lucky loser" from the pre-qualifying tournament. Having tested the umpire's announcement skills as well as each other, the match ended with Ferrero defeating Ferreira, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

The 19-year-old Ferrero's reward is a second round match today against Britain's Tim Henman, the No 10 seed, who was given a bye in the first round. Ferrero, ranked No 44, is one of the most talented of the latest crop of Spanish players. Greg Rusedski discovered that when the youngster from Valencia took a set off him in the first round of the United States Open.

Ferrero then defeated his compatriot Alex Corretja, the winner of last year's ATP Tour Championship, in the final of the Majorca tournament in September.

Henman desperately needs to advance at least to the final here to keep alive his prospects of qualifying for the eight-man ATP Tour Championship in Hanover on 23 November. Henman is currently in 11th place, and his chances were not improved when Enqvist, at No 8, increased his points tally by beating Grosjean.

Nicolas Kiefer, of Germany, who was due to play his opening match today, against either Felix Mantilla or John van Lottum, also withdrew from the tournament yesterday. Kiefer, placed No 5 in the Hanover race, decided not to risk his injured left ankle.

The British challengers certainly cannot complain about their scheduling. Henman is due to play Ferrero at noon in the opening match on the Centre Court, and Rusedski, the defending champion, meets the Spaniard, Albert Costa in the third match on Court No 1.