Originally created 05/26/98

Sampras plays his usual game

PARIS -- Pete Sampras ignored the sweaty streaks of red clay coating his white socks. He pretended he was on a hard surface, or on the grass courts on which he's nearly unbeatable.

Sure, the balls felt heavy and the muddy court slowed his forays to the net. But Sampras, to whom clay has always felt like quicksand, stuck to his normal style.

The result was a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over golfing buddy Todd Martin in Monday's first round of the French Open, a tournament that annually bedevils Sampras and is the only Grand Slam title to elude him.

Sampras has dominated tennis the past five years with powerful serves and sharp volleys. But those elements are least effective on clay, where stamina and persistence reign.

He has won 10 Grand Slam titles, but has never made it past the semifinals of the French Open, where he is seeded No. 1 year after year, but often loses to much lower-ranked players.

On Monday, against a player who won a clay-court event last month in Barcelona, Spain, the top-seeded Sampras slammed serves at up to 127 mph and refused to sacrifice his volleying game.

"It's my only choice, to try to play the way I play on hard courts," he said. "I'm not going to stay back and win this tournament. I know that I need to come in.

"Today, it was cold and windy. The balls were very heavy. The court was very muddy. But that's just part of clay."

Venus Williams nearly matched Sampras' power, smashing service winners at up to 108 mph while winning 12 of the last 14 games to defeat Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand.

Williams, seeded eighth in just her second year at Roland Garros, won 6-3, 6-1 against the overwhelmed Tanasugarn, like Williams, a native of Los Angeles.

Wearing hoop earrings and white, turquoise and royal blue beads in her hair, Williams was stoic throughout the match, until she shocked Tanasugarn with a delicate drop shot in the next-to-last game.

As the shot floated across the net, Williams turned to smile at her sister, Serena, who plays her first-round match Tuesday.

"I think the only people that are going to run that down are Serena and me," she said.

Top-seeded Martina Hingis won 6-2, 6-1 over Maria Sanchez Lorenzo. Hingis made it to the final last year despite a strained knee ligament caused by a fall from a horse.

She was back on horseback in the days leading to this year's tournament, but was much more careful as she prepared for the only Grand Slam tournament she failed to win in 1997.

"I'm riding, but not as crazy as last year," Hingis said. "I was jumping a little bit with my horse, but not too high."

Sampras had 12 aces against Martin, six in the final set. At times, such as when he leaped high to smash an overhead in the final set, he seemed to be playing on grass.

But he also adapted his game in subtle ways to the slow clay. He varied his serves, whipping some at blinding speeds and throwing in a few angled ones.

"One thing I thought Pete did well in adjusting to the clay was when he stood out wide and hit kick serves," Martin said. "He's got a great serve to do that with."

Sampras reached the semifinals two years ago, but it was unusually hot and dry that spring -- making the courts play more like a hard surface. This year, Sampras knows he may not be as lucky.

"The way I look at clay, it's basically balls and weather," he said. "It certainly would be nice if it warmed up a little bit, got a little bit dryer, which would make things quicker, which helps me."

Even if that happens, though, Martin feels his friend's hopes of finally winning at Roland Garros probably won't be fulfilled.

"I think he has a chance, but I don't think they're great," Martin said. "Pete's a shotmaker. I'm not necessarily sure if these are shotmakers' conditions. It's gritty, consistent, steady, patient -- those things. If Pete doesn't win this tournament, I would have to say that those are probably some of the reasons why he wouldn't."


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