TENNIS: Sampras puts faith in healer

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PETE SAMPRAS is receiving treatment from a local chiropractor in the hope of reviving his quest to end 1998 as the world No 1 for a record sixth year consecutively. The healing hands belong to Christoph Zipf, a 35-year-old former German Davis Cup player whose career was curtailed by back problems.

"It's nice to work with sportsmen," Zipf said. "I find it easier because we understand each other. I think Pete's going to be OK." Zipf competed on the professional circuit from 1979 to 1985 and was prominent in the German tennis league until 1989.

Sampras, whose progress was hindered by a back injury in Lyons last week, is one of 16 players, including the British challengers, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, given byes in the first round of the $2.45m (pounds 1.5m) Eurocard Open here.

"I have a chance to make it, and that's really all I can ask for," Sampras said. "It's up to me now. I can't really expect the other players to lose. It [being No 1 for a sixth time] is a very important goal. It's something that might never be achieved again."

Henman, the ninth seed, is scheduled to play tonight against either Mark Woodforde, of Australia, or the Moroccan Hicham Arazi. Rusedski, seeded No 13, opens tomorrow against Australia's Jason Staltenberg or David Prinosil, a German wild card. Sampras is also due to play tomorrow, against either Nicolas Kiefer, of Germany, or Zimbabwe's Byron Black.

Ailments are signposts on the road to Hannover, where the eight-man ATP Tour Championship will be held in a month's time. But, in Henman's case, there seems little to be concerned about except bruised confidence as a result of his 6-0, 6-3 defeat by Sampras in the quarter-finals in Vienna. It was there that Rusedski failed to nail Karol Kucera after leading the talented Slovakian in both sets of their semi-final.

In Lyons, Sampras withdrew from his quarter-final against Germany's Tommy Haas. Marcelo Rios, the Chilean world No 2, then retired against Haas in the semi-finals after straining a hamstring when the German led 6-2, 1-0. Yesterday, the mere sight of Haas's name was enough for the Frenchman Nicolas Escude, who withdrew with a pulled muscle.

Haas now plays South Africa's David Nainkin, a lucky loser. And Rios plays the winner.

Andre Agassi, who qualified for Hannover by winning the Czech indoor title in Ostrava on Sunday, is among those challenging Sampras for the No 1 position. It is astonishing to think that the Las Vegas showman, whose commitment has been criticised in the past, was as low as No 141 on the ATP Tour's computer last November. Agassi, who is in Sampras's half of the draw, opens against Andrei Pavel, a 24-year-old Romanian, ranked No 68, who gained entry as a lucky loser and defeated the Dutchman Paul Haarhuis in straight sets in the first round.

The semi-retired Boris Becker, who gave Sampras his wild card for Vienna, has kept the one offered here. Becker won a memorable final against Sampras here in 1996. The former No 1 and three-times Wimbledon champion will command centre stage this afternoon when he plays Sjeng Schalken, a Dutch qualifier, ranked No 66. By way of a bonus, Becker partners Agassi tonight in the doubles tournament.

Todd Martin was spared the potentially difficult task of playing Marat Safin in the first round yesterday. The 18-year-old Russian prodigy withdrew after waking with a stomach upset on the morning his name appeared in the world's top 50 for the first time. Safin's replacement, Canada's Sebastien Lareau did not detain Martin, who won 6-3, 6-3. The American now plays Kucera, the No 8 seed. One of them is a possible semi-final opponent for Rusedski.

Describing what it is like to face Rusedski's serve, Martin drew a football analogy. "Imagine being the goalie for a penalty shot, but they place the ball six feet away," the American said. "You want to duck, dive, hide - whatever you can." Forget Rusedski's serve - Martin has devised a handicapping system for England to win their next penalty shoot-out.