Sampras falls to journeyman in first round

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

PARIS -- Muttering, slouching, slamming his racket to the ground and smacking a ball into the stands, Pete Sampras was in typical French Open form Monday.

Which is to say: He was out of sorts for just about the entire match and, yet again, quickly out of the only Grand Slam tournament he's never won.

When the last of his 93 unforced errors fell, Sampras had lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) to Italian journeyman Andrea Gaudenzi and was eliminated at Roland Garros in his opening match for the second time in three years.

On a day when three rain interruptions blocked play across the tournament for a total of 3 1/2 hours and a constant breeze made balls dance oddly, some other top players had lapses, too. But top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt and three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten still managed to win in straight sets, as did Venus Williams.

Unlike on grass or hard courts, where his stinging serves and volleys have been so superior for so many years and allow him to pull out victories even when he's not as his sharpest, Sampras can't conjure that extra oomph on the slower clay.

And now, at age 30, he's burdened with a 28-tournament title drought that dates to July 2000, when he won Wimbledon for a record 13th Grand Slam championship.

"As you get a little bit older, as Slams go by, it's pretty difficult to get over it," said Sampras, his words deflated. "It's not like I'm 20 and I have the next 10 years to have an opportunity. Each time one goes by, it's one that you have to wait a year to come back and try to do it."

He had his spots against the 28-year-old Gaudenzi, who only once has been as far as the fourth round of a major -- back in 1994 -- and is ranked 69th.

But Sampras frittered away 14 break points, put in a pedestrian 57 percent of his first serves, and managed 18 winners all day. Gaudenzi, meanwhile, whistled 19 passing shots by Sampras.

Most tellingly, when Sampras served for the fourth set at 5-4, he lost the game by misfiring one of his trademark overhead smashes and sending Gaudenzi's weak backhand stab lob into the bottom of the net. The ball bounced back to Sampras and he kicked it over the net.

There were other signs of just how frustrating -- a word he used about a dozen times in 10 minutes to describe his mood -- a day it was for someone who leads active players in titles (63), match wins (749) and weeks at No. 1 (a record 286).

The chair umpire warned Sampras for ball abuse when he hit one 20 feet up after sending a forehand wide at 3-3 in the fourth set. At another juncture, Sampras threw his racket to the ground with a thud; later, he tossed it in the air like a baton twirler, except he didn't try to catch it.

After many miscues, he would shuffle back to the baseline, talking to himself or hitting his leg with the racket or drooping his head and shoulders.

Hewitt, Kuerten and Williams all came here with nagging injury worries and none sparkled Monday. Hewitt beat Andre Sa of Brazil 7-5, 6-4, 7-5, Kuerten got past Ivo Heuberger of Switzerland 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, and Williams -- seeded No. 2 among women -- eliminated Bianka Lamade of Germany 6-3, 6-3.

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