Tennis: Sampras surprised by Chang

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PETE SAMPRAS won the Italian Open title before the "Ark", which is not as long ago as it may seem, since the wooden Centre Court at the Foro Italico was completed in 1996, two years after the world No 1's impressive triumph on clay. Yesterday, however, Sampras's largely disappointing experiences on the sport's slowest surface found a new dimension when he was out-served by Michael Chang, 11 aces to five.

The day's other surprise was sprung by Brett Steven, a 29-year-old New Zealand journeyman, who defeated Spain's Carlos Moya, the Monte Carlo Open champion, 7-5, 6-0. "I don't think anybody in their right mind would have taken me to win," Steven said after advancing to the quarter-finals.

Although many observers would have fancied the counter-punching Chang's prospects against his American compatriot, the serve is hardly his biggest weapon. Chang has, of course, achieved the one honour denied to his opponent, winning the French Open back in 1989 and dispatching Sampras, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, in the second round in the process.

That was a victory for Chang's prodigious guile over Sampras's latent talent that would secure for him the United States Open in 1990 and nine other Grand Slams titles thereafter, four of them at Wimbledon.

They had not met on a clay court since then, Sampras winning 11 of their 17 matches in the interim. Solidly though Chang served yesterday in making up some of the ground lost earlier in the season because of a knee injury, his win, 6-2, 7-6, was crafted by greater confidence in his rallying skills allied to his opponent's distrust of the way the balls behaved for him. Sampras's 37 unforced errors to Chang's 13 represent the more accurate tale of events.

Sampras, in common with Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who double-faulted on match point in losing to the Dutchman Richard Krajicek, numbers among the players who have complained about the speed of the balls here. But to suggest that the fast balls favoured Chang's serve, as Sampras did yesterday, appears to defy logic. It was with his ground strokes that Sampras suffered most, rarely gauging the pace of his shots correctly, many of them finding the net, others flying long or wide.

He was broken in the opening game and again for 1-4, double-faulting on break point, in losing the first set in only 28 minutes. Although Sampras improved during the second set, after saving three break points in the third game and another in the 11th - after successfully urging the crowd to support him instead of whistling at his errors - he was unable to build on a 2-0 lead in the tie-break, which Chang won, 8-6.

"Pete's style has never been one to beat players in long rallies, and clay has never been his best surface," Chang said. "Going for his shots forced him into errors. I just tried to mix it up and play smart tennis. I don't think I'll ever win matches just by serving well.''

Steven, who recovered from 1-4 in the first set to "fluster" Moya, did so by changing his tactics and slicing short shots. "It's not attractive tennis, bit it worked well," the New Zealander said."I managed to keep him off balance, but if we meet again at the French Open I'm sure he will know mentally how to play me.''

Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, edged Kafelnikov, the 1996 French Open winner, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6. Gustavo Kuerten, of Brazil, the reigning French champion, defeated the young German Tommy Haas, 6-4, 6-2, and Marcelo Rios, the Chilean world No 3, swept past Thomas Muster, the former "King of Clay", 6-3, 6-1.