- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

PARIS Head down, shoulders slumped, legs heavy, Pete Sampras shuffled away from the French Open as he has year after year, frustrated and disappointed yet doggedly vowing to try again.

Sampras comes here each spring in search of a personal validation, proof he can win on clay and capture the Grand Slam title that keeps getting away. Each year he leaves early, the victim of more punishment.

The beating came this time in the first round yesterday against Australia's Mark Philippoussis 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 8-6, and it was all the more painful to the second-seeded Sampras because he played so well in defeat knows that, at 28, time is running out on him.

He knows, too, his trend at the French doesn't look promising third round and out three years ago, second round the past two years, first round this year.

After more than 3 and 1/2 hours in blustery weather that kept shifting from hot to cold, from sunny to cloudy and back again, the match between serving titans ended in the most ignoble way when Sampras double-faulted on match point.

Ever the stranger in a strange land at Roland Garros, Sampras asked the umpire at 6-6 in the fifth set whether they play a tiebreaker.

No, the umpire said, no tiebreaker. At the French, unlike the U.S. Open, the fifth set is played out in games.

Sampras never won another point. He watched Philippoussis serve his 23rd ace in taking a 7-6 lead at love before Sampras fell at love in the final game.

Sampras looked the picture of misery and weariness at the end, though he denied fatigue was a factor. His legs moved slowly, his socks and shoes seemed caked with a couple of pounds of clay and he had no punch in his game. When he tried to describe his emotions a few minutes later, his voice was as soft and weak as some of his shots in the final games.

"I'm sitting here very disappointed about what happened," Sampras said. "Very close match. Could have gone either way. I feel like I had some chances, but Mark, I give him all the credit. He served huge."

Sampras took solace in playing a solid, tough match that showed he can adapt his serve-and-volley style to a modicum of proficiency on clay. There weren't many long rallies, but there also weren't a lot of embarrassing gaffes as there had been in Sampras' other early round exits.

In 11 appearances at the French, Sampras has lost in the first round twice, the second round four times and the third round once. He reached the quarters three times and the semifinals once.

"I certainly haven't gotten the breaks at this event over the years," Sampras said. "One year, hopefully, I'll get those breaks.

"I feel like my game was there today. I didn't feel like I played poorly. I played fine. But it's frustrating flying home tomorrow. I was certainly hoping to be a threat here."

For some of the greatest players in tennis history, certain tournaments eluded their grasp. For Bjorn Borg, it was the U.S. Open. For Ivan Lendl, it was Wimbledon. For Sampras, it is the French.

And like the others in their time, Sampras won't concede his game is ill-suited to this surface.

"There's never been a question in my mind that I can play well here," he said. "I played fine today. I came up short. I feel like the court here is quick enough to serve and volley. I was doing well today. The game's there. It's just a matter of putting it all together and winning a close match like this.

"It's a tough draw to play Mark in the first round, to try to get your bearings … against someone who gives you no rhythm and serves that big."

Sampras said he expects to keep trying at the French until he retires.

"I'm turning 29 this year, and the years are going," he said. "I see myself playing this game for a lot of years, but certainly every year the French goes by and I don't win here, it's one opportunity missed. But I'll be back next year and every year that I'm playing this game."

Asked whether it would bother him if he never won the French, never completed the career Grand Slam as rival Andre Agassi did last year, Sampras replied:

"In a perfect world, a perfect career, you'd like to win all the majors, do everything in the game. I have a very high bar that I've raised. It kind of would be disappointing if I would not win it, but life will go on. It's certainly nothing to be ashamed of, not winning here. I would certainly one day love to do it."

The women's No. 1, Martina Hingis, also seeking her first French Open title, beat Sabine Appelmans 6-0, 6-4 in the opening match on Center Court. No. 15 Jennifer Capriati, whose ranking rose into the top 15 earlier this year, suffered her fourth consecutive defeat since late March, losing to Fabiola Zuluaga 6-3, 7-5.

Hingis, eager to erase the memory of her emotional loss against Steffi Graf in last year's final, walked onto center court to polite applause and a couple of whistles from the few hundred fans in the stands. She lost only eight points in the first set, won the match in 52 minutes and walked off smiling this time.

Fans booed when Hingis blew a lead and threw a tantrum in the final a year ago, and she sobbed in her mother's arms during the closing ceremony.

"It was an unbelievable emotional thing," said Hingis, 19. "Since then many things have changed. I'm playing well now. I'll just try to have a good tournament and see how it goes. If there's someone better than me, it's not a drama."

No. 3 Monica Seles, who is seeking her fourth French Open title and her first since 1992, beat Silvija Talaja 6-2, 6-2.

Two other Americans ousted seeded players. Meghann Shaughnessy upset No. 12 Julie Halard-Decugis of France 7-5, 6-4, and Jan-Michael Gambill beat No. 8 Nicolas Kiefer 6-3, 7-5, 6-1.

The men's No. 4, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, blew a big lead but still edged Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4.

Gustavo Kuerten, the 1997 champion who is seeded No. 5, won the first 15 games and beat Andreas Vinciguerra 6-0, 6-0, 6-3.

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