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Tennis
Alexander Wolff
June 08, 1998
Clay Pigeons
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June 08, 1998

Tennis

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Clay Pigeons

Pete Sampras came to the French Open less concerned about the fuss over the one Grand Slam event he has never won than, he said, "about my Lakers getting swept." His nonchalance was ill-timed, for Sampras and every other American man found themselves on the business end of a broom in the opening days at Roland Garros. Andre Agassi was ushered out by Marat Safin of Russia, an 18-year-old qualifier. Two-time French champion Jim Courier was a straight-set loser to anonymous Jens Knippschild of Germany. Then Sampras himself saw a 4-1 lead in the first set get soiled in a rain delay and lost to No. 97 Ramon Delgado of Paraguay in straight sets. Of the dozen U.S. men in the draw, only Michael Chang got past the second round. "We're still in doubles, aren't we?" Chang said, after beating John Van Lottum of the Netherlands, in a tone tentative enough to foreshadow his loss a round later to Spain's Francisco Clavet.

It makes sense that the premier clay-court test would become the first Grand Slam event in the Open era in which no U.S. man reached the round of 16. After learning the game primarily on faster hard courts, Americans find themselves facing patient players willing to build points with painstaking care. Early rains slowed the clay more, leaving the Yanks frustrated at not being able to put away shots that would have been hard-court winners. "It's like trying to swat a fly and missing it all the time," said Jan-Michael Gambill, one of the U.S. losers.

As for Sampras, he has failed nine times to add a French tide to a portfolio that includes championships in four Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens and two Australians. Against Delgado, he seemed distracted, almost uninterested, although he insisted, "The motivation's still there." If so, he might consider taking on a clay-court guru like Jose Higueras, who helped Courier to his two titles, or going to Europe in early spring to get in two months of work on dirt tracks. Tony Roche, who worked with Ivan Lendl during Lendl's unavailing quest to win Wimbledon, believes Sampras can win in Paris, but suggests he would have to turn doing so into a paramount goal. Sampras demurs. " Lendl and Wimbledon, that was an obsession," he says. "I can't be obsessed. It's not my personality."

The question is whether there's sufficient patience in that personality. "Patience is a necessity on any surface, even in Life," says Chang. That he was the American whose Parisian stay lasted the longest is not a surprise.

NCAA Doubles Delight
The Best and The Bryans

Two highly regarded U.S. prospects, Bob and Mike Bryan, were absent from the field in Paris. The Bryans, 20-year-old twins and sophomores at Stanford, were in Athens, Ga., helping the Cardinal win the NCAA men's team title for the fourth straight year. Both Bryans are 6'3" and have potent serves and strong all-court games. Bob, a lefty, ended the season as the No. 1-ranked collegian; Mike, a righty, was ranked as high as second and ended up No. 7.

But it's as a doubles team that the Bryans are likely to make a mark as pros. Already seen as the U.S. Davis Cup tandem of the future, they have played together in three U.S. Opens. At Stanford they were unbeaten in dual matches this year, and on Sunday they won the NCAA doubles title in the individual tournament. "Bob and I always seem to know what the other one is going to do on the court," says Mike, who is two minutes older. "We're best friends, we're roommates, and we'll keep playing together when we turn pro."

The Bryans helped Stanford to the most dominating season in college tennis history. The Cardinal, which has won the NCAA title 16 times since 1973, was 28-0 in dual matches and beat foes by a cumulative 167-3 in individual matches. "Without a doubt, this is the best team I've ever had," says coach Dick Gould, whose 1978 squad also went undefeated and featured a fair No. 1 player named John McEnroe.
—L. Jon Wertheim

Cheers de Bronx for Mary
The French Disconnection

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