Tennis: Sampras sent packing after sluggish display: World No 1 yearns for home after first-round fall

THE road to Wimbledon is narrowing ominously for the leading Americans. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, was defeated in his opening match in the Stella Artois tournament here yesterday; Jim Courier is in Florida, recovering from the loss of the French Open title; and Andre Agassi's prospects of defending the All England Club championship do not appear to be improving.

Sampras's fragile return of serve was savaged by Grant Stafford, a South African ranked No 110, and the American joined Goran Ivanisevic, who defeated him in the Wimbeldon semi- finals last year, in looking for the practice courts.

Stafford, 22, worked hard for two hours and 20 minutes and thoroughly deserved his win,

5-7, 7-5, 6-4. He lost to Britain's Chris Bailey in the semi-finals at Beckenham last week, but looked far more comfortable on the grass than Sampras, who has yet to make the tricky transition from the slow clay of Paris.

Sampras's heart did not seem to be in his work, and he spoke of homesickness. 'American guys don't dread Europe, but it's not like home and I've been away for five weeks,' he said. Realising how tame this sounded, he added: 'That's a bad excuse. I played like an idiot. Lethargic, that's the word.'

If Agassi feels lethargic, it is probably because he has been unable to play since losing to Sergi Bruguera in Barcelona in April. Even if he materialises on the Centre Court at Wimbledon at 2pm on Monday week, it seems increasingly doubtful that he will be able to make more than a token defence of the title.

According to Agassi's physician, Dr Richard Westbrook, a decision will be taken tomorrow whether or not to allow him to start hitting tennis balls for the first time in two months.

Agassi has gone home to Las Vegas after receiving treatment for tendinitis of the right wrist in Seattle. He is due to play in the new grass court tournament in Halle, Germany, next week.

'It will be Saturday at the earliest when I would allow Andre to go on the court,' Dr Westbrook, an orthopaedic surgeon, said from his practice in El Paso, Texas, yesterday. 'We are letting the wrist settle. In effect, he hasn't hit a ball since Barcelona. If the pain has gone away on Saturday we are going to see if he can play.' Asked to rate the patient's prospects, the doctor said: 'We are just going to have to wait and see.'

Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, whose serving was too potent for Britain's Jeremy Bates yesterday, expressed doubts that Agassi would be a factor. 'If you are a serve and volleyer you might say, 'OK, I'll give it a try', but with his kind of game he has to work really hard for every match. If he is not 100 per cent I don't think he will play.'

Bates was defeated, 6-3, 6-2, on the Centre Court almost back-to-back with Ross Matheson, one of the previous day's British heroes. Matheson, on Court One, was also out-served. Having startled the 13th seed, Jakob Hlasek, on Tuesday, the Scot, whose ranking, No 563, conveys his experience at this level of the game, was unable to cope with David Witt, a fellow- qualifier, ranked No 191.

Witt, a 20-year-old from Highpoint, North Carolina, who hits the ball accordingly, won, 6-3, 6-4. He now plays another Briton, Chris Wilkinson, the conqueror of Ivanisevic. 'What can I say to Chris?' Matheson said. 'Witt nearly knocked me off the court, and I just hope he doesn't serve that well.'

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