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 title
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
A young woman leaves the U.S. for France to flee her abusive
American father and play for the country of her mother's birth.
She turns heads not only with each stroke she carves out but
also with the figure she cuts in leading-edge tennis couture.
Why then is Mary Pierce unloved in Paris? The whistles and boos
that left her in tears at Roland Garros two years ago, after a
loss to Germany's Barbara Rittner, returned last week in a loss
to 19-year-old Magui Serna of Spain. "If I win, I'm the French
Mary Pierce," she said afterward. "If I lose, I'm an American."
In fact, the reluctance of the French to embrace Pierce has
little to do with her inability to win much more than a Carolyn
Bessette Kennedy look-alike contest since her 1995 Australian
Open victory. She spends most of her downtime in Florida, speaks
imperfect French and can cop an imperious manner that her record
won't excuse. In April, before France's Federation Cup date with
Belgium, she called from the U.S. to ask captain Yannick Noah if
she could skip training camp and arrive the day before the tie.
Don't bother coming, Noah replied.
But more than anything else, the French fault her for a lack of
imagination. When Pierce tried out for the French Fed Cup team
in 1992, former pro Francoise Durr suggested that she play a
short match at the end of a workout. Pierce, taught by her
father, who stressed drills, and raised in the ground-stroke
gulag of Nick Bollettieri, looked back blankly. She had never
learned to build points, only to whack the fuzz off the ball.
From a tennis queen, Pierce's adopted compatriots expect more.
THE ACE OF SPADEA'S
Jim Pierce is barred from the WTA Tour because of his abusive
behavior, but since December he has been working with Vince
Spadea, who credits Jim with helping him reach his first ATP
Tour final, in St. Polten, Austria, on May 23. "When I'm in town
[Boca Raton, Fla., where Spadea lives], he puts me through a
regimen of conditioning, stroke production, psychological
approach, things like that," Spadea says of Pierce. "For four
years I hadn't been in the top 50. Now I've broken through [to
Number 49]." Mary has no problem with the arrangement, and on
those occasions when the men's and women's tours cross paths,
the WTA doesn't mind either--so long as Jim is on site only when
Spadea is playing or practicing....
Marcelo Rios may be the favorite at the French, but he's no
French favorite: For a record-tying third year in a row he has
been awarded the Prix Citron by the Gallic media for having the
sport's sourest disposition....
American tennis lost 3.1 million recreational players between
1992 and '96, but the USTA has a bold plan to stanch the
bleeding: bounty hunting. It has earmarked more than $1 million
(from a new five-year, $50 million initiative) to pay
instructors $2 for each new pupil they sign up for one of two
How much is this French Open mere prelude to the World Cup? Jan
Siemerink says that if the Dutch soccer team were to play a Cup
match that conflicted with a tennis match of his, he'd take a
COLOR PHOTO: LAURENT REBOURS/AP IN THE RED Against the 97th-ranked Delgado, Sampras went from Pistol Pete to pistol-whipped. [Pete Sampras]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER NO HOMEGIRL The French haven't embraced Pierce, in part because she hasn't embraced them. [Mary Pierce in game]