Sampras faces Mantilla hurdle

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The Independent Online

It seems strange to be in Italy and not to be a lira millionaire, although that thought is unlikely to cross the minds of a gathering here this week of the world's leading players, mega-rich in euros, dollars, sterling, or whatever the banks will accept.

For some, the colour of the money may matter less than the texture of the court surface. Pete Sampras, for example, won the Italian Open in impressive style in 1994 but is still regarded as a duffer on clay because the French Open is not listed among his record 13 Grand Slam singles titles.

Sampras, 30, lives in hope. "I'm in the twilight," the Californian said yesterday, "but the twilight might last five years. I feel that I've still got a few majors in me. I'm not looking past the French Open right now. I want to see if I can get my game going on the red stuff." A first-round match here against Felix Mantilla, one of the myriad Spanish clay-courters, is hardly an ideal start.

A defeat on grass by Alex Corretja of Spain – hardly a Wimbledon cavalier – in the Davis Cup last month will have done little for Sampras's confidence. "If I played that match 10 times, I might lose one," he said. "When I'm playing well, it doesn't matter what surface I'm playing on."

Sampras has yet to play well this year, by his standards. Apart from his Davis Cup loss to Corretja, his biggest shock was a defeat in his opening match at the Nasdaq-100 Open on rubberised concrete in Key Biscayne by Fernando Gonzalez, a Chilean qualifier.

Tim Henman, hoping to build on his appearance in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Open a fortnight ago, is due to play Gonzalez in the first round here, the Chilean having qualified for his second Masters Series event.

"I'm 100 per cent healthy and ready to go," the British No 1 said yesterday. "I feel very good about my game and I couldn't be happier the way things have been progressing. As far as this week goes, it's about adjusting to the conditions, because it's amazing how it varies.

"We practised this morning for an hour and a half, and it is different. The ball flies a lot more, and it definitely plays a bit quicker. You'd think that suits me, and I think it does if I'm serving well. But it's difficult from the baseline. The ball is light and much harder to control. So I've been working hard to get the consistency."

The courts in Rome tend to be faster than those in Monte Carlo. "They are. They are harder," Henman said. "I think it's good I can play in both conditions. When I play in the really heavy conditions, I think the out-and-out clay court players have a tough time in hitting penetrating shots. They put so much top-spin on it that when it hits the surface it doesn't really kick off, because it's heavy. Whereas when they play on the quicker ones I think it suits them a lot more, because, with their spin, they can really get you out of court. I think this surface is going to be a good test for everyone."

If Henman overcomes Gonzalez he may play Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, in the second round. Rusedski is due to play his opening match today against Stefano Galvani, a 24-year-old wild card from Padua. Galvani is fresh from an impressive week in Barcelona, where he defeated Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian former world No 1.

* Thomas Johansson, the leader in the ATP Champions Race 2002, will be back to defend his Samsung Open title in Nottingham next month. The Australian Open champion will be joined at the event, which runs from June 17 to 22, by Andy Roddick, of the United States, who is at No 9 in the Champions Race.

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