Tennis: Sampras staggers through

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The Independent Online
ANYONE WHO wonders why Pete Sampras finds it so hard to add the French Open to his 11 Grand Slam singles titles would have a better idea if they had seen the Wimbledon champion drag his weary body off the Centre Court clay yesterday, having come close to losing a first round epic lasting 4hr 18min.

Unless the American recovers his physical and psychological powers by tomorrow, it is difficult to see him advancing beyond a second-round match against the Ukrainian, Andrei Medvedev.

Juan Antonio Marin, from Costa Rica, went into yesterday's contest with Sampras, the man who has dominated the world rankings for six years, with a Grand Slam match record of 0-7. Although unable to improve that, Marin, ranked No 92, at least had the satisfaction of pushing the No 2 seed to the limit.

Sampras, who was guilty of 74 unforced errors, won on his third match point, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, having been unable to convert his first two opportunities in the fourth-set tie-break, double-faulting to squander the second chance. Marin won the shoot-out, 11-9, on his eighth set point. "I survived by the grace of God, I guess," Sampras said.

Considering how drained Sampras looked, it is interesting that the shape of women's tennis is a big issue here as the sturdy Amelie Mauresmo, the new home heroine, prepares to do battle today with Martina Hingis, the world No 1, in the second round of the singles. Mary Pierce, the French No 1, weighed in to the debate yesterday, talking frankly about using creatine to supplement her training regimen.

Asked how she reacted to all the talk about her muscular physique, Pierce said: "I take that as a compliment, because we are athletes. Look at the track and field athletes, and the gymnasts. They all have great bodies. It's just something that's coming into tennis that wasn't there before. All they did was really just play tennis."

The WTA Tour emphasises that creatine is not a banned substance under its anti-doping programme. "I'm not a science person," Pierce said, "but the thing about creatine is it really helps recovery. It helps when you lift weights, run hard, and it helps to rebuild the muscle tissues and the fibres you tear a little bit. It just gives you a little bit of extra energy that you feel like maybe you don't have, so you can push yourself a little more."

Pierce did not have to push herself too much to overcome South Africa's Joannette Kruger in the first round, 6-4, 6-3. Nor did two of the former champions (here and everywhere else), Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Graf defeated Magdalena Maleeva, of Bulgaria, 6-2, 6-0, and Seles beat Fang Li, of China, 6-2, 6-4.

"I think it's positive that players are in better shape," Graf said. "They're working out; obviously gaining strength with that. The only concern probably is how early you start doing it. That's maybe the only thing I would point out. Even if you see some of the juniors now the way they're built, you can see they're playing hours and hours a day. Their bodies will not last as long any more as they used to."

Seles said: "You can acquire power; it just depends if you want to acquire power or not. If you look at track and field, power and speed are the most important. I think tennis in general is sure changing. It changed from [Martina] Navratilova, who really brought the strength into tennis. Then Steffi brought it to another level. Then I started hitting the ball hard. Then all the youngsters grew up watching us, so they knew they had to hit the ball harder to be a top player. The youngsters who are watching players on the entire Tour now are going to hit it even harder and be even stronger physically."

Sam Smith, Britain's lone representative amid the flexing of female muscles at Stade Roland Garros, was unable to stretch into the second round, losing yesterday to Germany's Elena Wagner, 6-1, 7-6. Wagner, though no valkyrie, was able to sweep Smith aside in the opening set and managed to hold her nerve better during a second set in which there were six breaks of serve en route to the tie-break. Wagner edged the shoot-out, 8-6, on her third match point.

Smith took an injury time-out after straining her right knee during the first point of the concluding game of the opening set. "My foot went, and my foot didn't follow," Smith said. "It's all right, though."

Patty Schnyder, the 20-year-old Swiss whose career has been played in the shadow of the prodigious Martina Hingis, has ended her relationship, on and off the court, with the controversial German "faith healer" Rainer Harnecker. "I have not spoken to him for three months, since I told him I wanted to make new arrangements," the No 11 seed said yesterday, after struggling through her opening match, beating the American Corina Morariu, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6.

Harnecker, 42, is wanted for questioning by the German authorities in connection with his methods of treatment. Schnyder is being coached at the French Open by the American Brad Dancer.