Tennis: Sampras left down and out

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Pete Sampras's quest for the French Open, the only Grand Slam championship to have eluded him, is over for another year. The world No 1 was defeated yesterday in the third round by Sweden's Magnus Norman, ranked No 65, who began his campaign here in Paris last Monday by edging out Britain's Greg Rusedski in five sets.

Sampras, who came into the tournament short of clay-court matches, swept through his opening two matches in straight sets, but looked uncomfortable from the start yesterday. Norman marked his 21st birthday with the biggest win of his career, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, achieved in two hours and 29 minutes.

There was an ominous sign that all was not well with Sampras when, on the eve of the match, he was granted a request to start the match later than originally scheduled in order to recover from a stomach upset.

Another upset yesterday involved Thomas Muster, who lost to Gustavo Kuerten, a Brazilian ranked No 66. The only time Kuerten had been on a court with Muster before was in Sao Paolo last September, when the Austrian walked out of a Davis Cup doubles rubber after claiming intimidation by the spectators, one of whom had shone a mirror in his eyes. Austria forfeited the tie.

Muster was left blinking again yesterday, partly by Kuerten's impressive shot-making but chiefly because of his own inability to close out a match at the French Open after leading 3-0 in the fifth set.

The 1995 champion, a former world No 1 and undisputed king of the clay courts, was eliminated in the third round, 6-7, 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. It was Muster's seventh defeat on clay in as many weeks.

During the fourth set Kuerten appeared to have lost the edge to his game, and once Muster took control in the final set, a customary execution was anticipated. But the 20-year-old from the southern Brazilian resort of Florianopolis, who resembled a beach bum in his yellow and blue outfit, suddenly began to kick sand in Muster's face again.

"I got too angry in the fourth set," Kuerten said. "I started to fight with myself. Then in the fifth set I didn't think I had anything to lose. I served a little bit easier in the 3-0 game, and maybe he started to think it was already done."

Muster shrugged when asked what had gone wrong. "Sometimes it's like that when you're not used to playing tough matches on clay," he said. "You're missing shots, left and right. Suddenly you're there and you can't close it out. Plus Gustavo played a good match. He fought to the end and deserved to win."

Ironically, Muster's two triumphs this year have been achieved on the concrete courts of Dubai and Florida. His decision to switch to a longer racket had appeared to be paying dividends until he returned the slow clay courts which had been his domain.

"The longer racket gives me options to play well on other surfaces and do different things," Muster said. "Maybe it's not the best thing yet on clay, but we're going to work on it. We're going to find a solution.

"Losing in five sets is very disappointing, but I thought played a good match today. You can't always blame something on materials."

The Davis Cup, won in such dramatic fashion by France against Sweden in Malmo in December last year, is on display in the Musketeers' Square, situated in the midst of statues of those French heroes of the 1920s, Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon.

Their international exploits heightened the passion for tennis, which led to the opening of the Stade Roland Garros in Paris in 1928 and which can be expected to be given full Gallic voice in support of Arnaud Boetsch this afternoon.

It was Boetsch who clinched the Davis Cup triumph in Sweden, winning a breathtaking final rubber against Nicklas Kulti, 10-8 in the fifth set. Today, unseeded, he carries French hopes in a third-round match against Marcelo Rios, the immensely gifted, but erratic, Chilean No 7 seed.

Rios says he feels as if he has played a Davis Cup tie already, having defeated the Zimbabwean brothers Black, Wayne and Byron, back-to-back in five set matches in the opening rounds of the Paris tournament.