Tennis: Schalken profits from late call

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HAVING begun the day frustratingly, making telephone calls to a perpetually engaged airline reservations number, the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken was delighted not to have booked a flight home from the Italian Open last night. The "lucky loser" from the qualifying event, pressed into action only an hour before play was due to start, eliminated Pat Rafter, the United States Open champion, in the first round, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4.

For the second time within a week, Schalken had profited from Marc Rosset's injury problems. The Swiss former Olympic champion had been forced to retire against Schalken during the second set of their first-round match in Hamburg, and a recurrence of the injury to his lower back caused him to withdraw from the Rafter match. "I think I'm going to take Mr Rosset out for dinner," Schalken said.

Knowing that a few players were less than 100 per cent fit on arriving at the Foro Italico, the Dutchman practised for four hours on Monday and hit with his compatriot Jan Siemerink yesterday morning. Apart from improving Schalken's footwork, the exercise enabled him to get used to the light balls that had bamboozled him during the qualifying tournament. "They were so fast I couldn't keep them in the court," Schalken said. "It was like playing at altitude.''

Resolving to attack Rafter's serve - "I tried to get on top of it, because if you go too far behind the baseline his kick is unbelievable" - Schalken won the only service break and was ready when the second one arrived in the third set. "The match was 50-50, but I could hold my serve all the time," he said.

It was fourth-seeded Rafter's first match since taking a month's break after losing to the American Brian MacPhie in the second round of the Japan Open, and the Australian's first contest on clay since losing to Sergi Bruguera in last year's French Open semi-finals.

Rafter, who tends to take time off from the tour before the Italian championships and after Wimbledon, considered that he had prepared well for his return to the courts. While this might have been true in terms of practice, he did overlook a couple of items that help during an hour and 46 minutes on court on hot, humid days - light coloured shirts, and a cap.

Starting the match wearing a deep red shirt, Rafter eventually changed into a white one with stripes. Sweltering spectators were made to feel even more uncomfortable when the Australian finished the match wearing black.

"I had to wear black, because I didn't have any white shirts with me that had [advertising] patches on them," Rafter said. "I should have rung my mum up and asked her to bring some more. It was surprisingly hot. I was pretty knackered at the end." And the cap? "I'm very particular about the cap. Being a serve and volleyer, it's got to fit just right, otherwise it will fall off when I'm playing. I didn't bring it with me. How smart is that on a day like today?''

Pete Sampras, the world No 1, won his first match in Rome since his triumph in 1994. The American defeated Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 7-6, 6-4, a performance that helped put behind him his defeat in Monte Carlo, 6-1, 6-1, against Fabrice Santoro.

Santoro also defeated Sampras in the first round in 1995, when the American was defending the Italian title he won with such style in 1994. His compatriot Jim Courier beat him in the opening round last year.

"Conditions this time are similar to when I won it," Sampras said. "As the match went on I was feeling the ball better, the forehand was coming around and I was serving well." Moreover, he remembered to play in white like a true Wimbledon champion.