Tennis: Sampras' quest abruptly ended by Paraguayan panache

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS'S forlorn quest for the French Open took another twist last night when a Paraguayan added his name to the list of players who have stepped between the world No 1 and the only Grand Slam title to have eluded him.

The American was defeated in the second round, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4, by Ramon Delgado, a 21-year-old from Asuncion, ranked No 97 in the world. For readers who might be tempted to leap excitedly to the wrong conclusion, that is Ramon Delgado, not to be confused with Jamie Delgado, the British journeyman from Warwickshire.

Paraguayan tennis players are even thinner on the ground than Brits. Their best, Victor Pecci, was the runner-up to Bjorn Borg at the 1979 French Open, his run of success prompting a ludicrous story that he learned to play by hitting oranges against a garage door.

It safely can be said that Delgado began to play at the age of 10 and had an impressive junior career before turning professional in 1995. That was the year Sampras experienced his earliest departure from the French Open, after losing in the first round against the Austrian Gilbert Schaller.

While preparing for his ninth challenge at Roland Garros on the green clay of Atlanta, Sampras defeated Delgado, 7-6, 7-6. The first set tie- break last night was decided by the same score, 8-6, but this time in the Paraguayan's favour. After that, Sampras struggled to keep in touch with an opponent growing in confidence.

Before meeting Sampras in a rain-interrupted contest completed in failing light, Delgado had sampled only one set in the tournament. His first-round opponent, the Czech Martin Damm, retired hurt when 2-6 down.

"Wake me up, it's a dream," Delgado said after hitting the winning point after two hours and three minutes. "It's too good. I don't have the words to describe it. At 4-1 [in the third set] I thought I could beat the No 1. I've worked all my life for this, and I had to go for it."

As with other Latin Americans, notably the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten in winning the title last year and the Chilean Marcelo Rios, ever since he began to climb to the top, Delgado did not lack vocal backing. "I saw the Paraguayan flag," he said. "There was great support. All of Paraguay was watching. I'll think they'll be happy like me now."

Sampras, whose place at No 1 is under threat again from Rios, who needs to reach the semi-finals to overtake him, will almost certainly take a wild card to start his Wimbledon preparation on the grass-courts at Queen's Club, London, in the Stella Artois Championships.

"Delgado didn't serve quite this well is Atlanta," Sampras said. "Today it seemed like he had a number of break-point opportunities. He came up with some pretty big serves, but I was letting him dictate a little bit. Obviously in these conditions it makes it that much more difficult for me to end the point. My serve isn't quite as effective. I got off to a great start, the rains came, and when we came back it was a very different match. He seemed to play a little bit better."

Monica Seles, the No 6 seed, advanced to the third round of the women's singles with a 2-6, 6-1, 6-0 win against Austria's Marion Maruska. Jana Novotna, the No 3 seed, struggled through the first set against Emilie Loit, ranked No 140, before overwhelming the French wild card, 7-5, 6- 0.

Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, who are seeded to meet in the women's quarter-finals, advanced to the third round unhindered. It has been argued that a case for equal prize money with the men might be made from the quarter-finals onward. Yesterday was "children's day" at Roland Garros and child's play for the two 17-year-olds. Hingis defeated Germany's Meike Babel, 6-1, 6-2, and Williams swept past Ai Sugiyama, of Japan, 6-0, 6- 2, winning the first eight games.