Tennis: Tillstrom earns tilt at Sampras: French Open Championships

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The Independent Online
THREE down, four to go, and Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf are flicking through the biographical notes on their next opponents at the French Open. Mikael Tillstrom and Irina Spirlea are not everyday people in the fourth round of Grand Slam championships.

Tillstrom, a Swede ranked No 226 in the world, came to Paris simply hoping to qualify for his first major tournament. Yesterday he earned the right to play the top man by eliminating Richard Krajicek, the 16th seed, 7-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Spirlea, one of two Romanians to have advanced to the last 16 of the women's singles, defeated the 10th-seeded Mary Joe Fernandez, the runner-up to Graf here last year, 6-4, 6-1. The 20-year-old from Bucharest confirmed the form she showed at the recent Italian Open, where she was a semi-finalist, eliminating Gabriela Sabatini before losing to Martina Navratilova.

Though Tillstrom, 24, has outstayed loftier compatriots such as Stefan Edberg and Magnus Gustafsson, he will require the resilience of his hero Mats Wilander (circa 1988) if he is to make any impression on Sampras.

In sweeping past Paul Haarhuis 6-1, 6-4, 6-1, the American allowed the Dutchman a meagre 15 points against his serve, one a double-fault, and only two in the concluding set.

Graf, who linked together the four Grand Slam titles in Australia in January, may experience some difficulty against Spirlea unless she raises the her level of performance. Below her best against Stephanie Rottier in the second round, she made sufficient errors yesterday to encourage Joanetta Kruger to take a set before reviving to win 6-0, 4-6, 6-2. 'She played well, but I made it a struggle,' Graf said. 'I'm not returning as well or moving as well. There is still lots to improve.'

Graf was surprised to learn of Fernandez's defeat. 'I realised there were a lot of surprises, but that really is an upset,' she said. It would have come as less of a shock had she been able to see the match. Fernandez was outplayed by a stronger opponent who used the court more astutely and was never afraid to go for winners.

If Graf glances at the draw, she will see other unexpected names in her half. Ines Gorrochategui, a 20-year-old Argentinian, elminated the 15th seed, Helena Sukova, 7-6, 7-6 and will play Iva Majoli, a 16-year-old Croatian, for the possibility of facing Graf in the quarter-finals.

Petra Ritter ended the tournament for Miriam Oremans, who defeated Navratilova in the opening round. The Austrian now meets Ruxandra Dragomir, a 21-year-old Romanian.

Mary Pierce, the 12th seed, is making a strong challenge on behalf of France. She has lost only two games in three matches and none of those were against the experienced American Lori McNeil, her victim yesterday. Pierce next plays the South African Amanda Coetzer.

Sampras, aside from being pleased with his form, will not be sorry to have seen the back of the 11th seed, Thomas Muster, one of the clay-court specialists ranged against him. Nor were the crowd on Court No 1, who began to jeer the Austrian's constant disputing of line calls during a fiery match against the Austrian Patrick Rafter.

Rafter won 6-4, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, but not before he had sampled the competitive spirit that drove Muster to a five-set victory against Andre Agsssi in the second round.

The contest became overheated at times, Muster being less than amused when Rafter leaped over the net after winning one point. 'He told me just to settle down,' the Austrian said, 'but I just said I wasn't too impressed by his little drawing (around the ball marks on the court).'