Originally created 05/28/98

Sampras: a beaten American in Paris



PARIS -- Pete Sampras solemnly packed his rackets and walked away, exiting the French Open after his latest loss on the clay courts that annually haunt him.

His recurring nightmare in Paris was caused this year by Ramon Delgado, a Paraguayan ranked 97th in the world. He defeated the world's top player 7-6 (8-6), 6-3, 6-4 on a soggy Wednesday that included three long rain delays.

Delgado knelt at the net after his victory, then ran to friends in the stands to get a Paraguayan flag. He waved it triumphantly as Sampras left the court.

"This is a dream," Delgado said. "I worked all my life for a victory like this."

Sampras has won 10 Grand Slam titles and dominated tennis the past five years, but he has never won at Roland Garros. Year after year, he comes in as the top seed and loses to much lower-ranked players.

"It is disappointing. I put so much emphasis on the majors, especially this one," said Sampras, who will lose his No. 1 ranking if third-seeded Marcelo Rios makes the semifinals. "Each year you feel like it is a missed opportunity."

Rios advanced to the third round, along with No. 13 Albert Costa. But two-time champion Jim Courier was a loser, leaving only three of the original 12 American men in the tournament.

Top-seeded woman Martina Hingis and No. 8 Venus Williams both won easily, keeping very much alive the possibility of a Williams-Hingis clash in the quarterfinals.

Hingis was a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Meike Babel. Williams, who was a second-round loser in her French Open debut last year, served winners at up to 118 mph in a 6-0, 6-2 win over Ai Sugiyama.

Other seeded women to win were No. 3 Jana Novotna and No. 6 Monica Seles. But No. 13 Anna Kournikova's second-round match was pushed back to Thursday because of rain and darkness.

Sampras dominates with his powerful serve and sharp volleys, but the soft clay makes his serve less effective and makes it tougher for him to rush the net.

And when the air is heavy, as it was Wednesday, the conditions are even worse for a power player such as Sampras.

"I just can't afford to have a bad day, especially on this surface and in these conditions," he said. "Obviously, this wasn't a good day."

Sampras was leading 4-1 in the first set when rain stopped play. But he sagged when they returned, losing the first set in a tiebreaker and then struggling to catch up the rest of the match.

Always uncomfortable on the clay, Sampras stumbled and fell while trying to reach a shot in the second set and ended up covered with red clay.

By the start of the third set, as dusk began turning to darkness, Delgado's shirt was soaked with sweat despite the cool evening temperatures. But the Paraguayan continued to slam winners.

Delgado even outserved Sampras, slamming 12 aces and double faulting once while Sampras had 10 aces and six double faults.

In nine trips to the French Open, Sampras has lost four times in the first or second round and has made it past the quarterfinals just once.

Yet he denies his annual quest for the only Grand Slam title to elude him has become an obsession, as winning the Wimbledon title became to Ivan Lendl in the 1980s.

"You look at Lendl and Wimbledon, that was an obsession," Sampras said. "I can't be obsessed, it's not my personality. I'm going to do whatever I can over the years to try to win one time. Obviously, I've come up short each year."

Sampras' loss left the French Open without its top two seeded men. No. 2 Petr Korda lost in the first round Tuesday to Argentina's Mariano Zabaleta, a qualifier ranked 213th in the world.