Tennis: Stich travels down the dusty road to defeat: No hiding from an ill wind at the French Open as the Croatian Prpic prospers at the expense of yet another seed while France's last hope disappears under a cloud

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The Independent Online
AN UMBRELLA was blown over the top of Court One, swirling dust from the clay courts filled the eyes and mouths of the players, and spectators spent almost as much time scurrying for shelter as watching matches. It was not the best of days here at the French Open, especially for Michael Stich and Mary Pierce.

Stich became the latest seed to fall in the men's singles, losing to Goran Prpic, of Croatia, 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2. The 1991 Wimbledon champion, who won the dollars 2m ( pounds 1.2m) jackpot at the Grand Slam Cup in December, was seeded nine. Only four of the top 10 remain: Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg and Sergi Bruguera.

'This is my biggest success ever,' Prpic, 29, said on reaching the quarter-finals. He is ranked No 181 in the world and has not been able to play without wearing a protective brace on his right knee since major surgery in 1986. He now faces either Jim Courier, the defending champion, or the Austrian Thomas Muster.

Pierce was an even sorrier sight than Stich. It was difficult enough for the 18-year-old from Montreal to step on the Centre Court against Jennifer Capriati as France's last hope in either of the singles events without having the controversy of her father's banishment from the tournament hanging over her with the clouds.

Try though she did, Pierce was unable to avoid ruining her prospects of playing Steffi Graf in the quarter- finals by mixing embarrassing errors with mighty winners in one of those women's matches in which service games are apt to be turned to disadvantage. Ignoring the noise of a partisan crowd, the 16-year-old Capriati contrived to produce the steadier play at crucial moments to win 6-4, 7-6.

The way the match ended encapsulated the 12th-seeded Pierce's misery. After netting her first serve at 5-6 in the tie-break, she delayed the second delivery for several seconds, attempting to hold her skirt down while waiting for the wind to settle and hoping that her nerve would hold. It did not, and the ball landed long.

As seven consecutive breaks of serve at the start of the match indicate, both players were experiencing difficulty with the conditions. Midway through the second set, Pierce had to leave the court to rinse one of her contact lenses.

Capriati, seeded six, even had to save three break points when serving for the first set, but Pierce's confidence sagged when her forehand drive was diverted by the net cord on the final point of the set. She lost her serve in the opening game of the second set by hitting a dreadful volley.

It was the sort of match that would have drawn some interesting responses from Pierce's father, Jim, who is not allowed in the grounds after being shown the door by security guards last Friday for disrupting his daughter's third-round match against Kimberly Po. He has been given two weeks by the Women's Tennis Council to answer charges of illegal coaching and abusive conduct. The Council will then decide whether to extend his ban to future tournaments. Wimbledon awaits the Council's recommendation.

Iva Majoli was also disappointed to lose but could live with it. The 15- year-old from Croatia came close to pushing Graf to a third set for the first time in the tournament. The power and accuracy of the German's forehand was restored in time for the top seed to win 6-4, 7-6 in an hour and 35 minutes.

The women's quarter-finals will feature the top eight seeds for the first time here in the open era. The line-up is: Graf v Capriati, Conchita Martinez v Anke Huber, Mary Joe Fernandez v Gabriela Sabatini, Jana Novotna v Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Graf was defeated by Capriati in the Barcelona Olympics final on the last occasion they played on a clay court.

There was disappoinment for Britain on the opening day of the junior events. The 16-year-old Jamie Delgado was defeated by Thomas Larsen, a 17-year-old Danish qualifier, 6-2,

7-6, and was warned for hitting a ball out of the court after making an error.

An ankle injury has forced Ivan Lendl, seeded No 1, out of the Direct Line Insurance Championship, which starts today at Beckenham. Brad Gilbert is the new top seed.

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