SAMPRAS, AGASSI Ousted in Rome

Tuesday, May 8th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

ROME (AP) _ Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi lost in the first round of the Italian Open on Tuesday, a pair of big upsets on clay that does not bode well for them at this month's French Open.

Sampras was the first to fall, losing to Israel's Harel Levy 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in a match that had begun Monday before a rain suspension.

Agassi, who has never won in Rome, followed Sampras' center-court exit. In his first European clay-court match of the season, he lost 6-3, 6-3 to Spain's Alex Calatrava.

Faring better at this $2.95 million event were top-seeded Gustavo Kuerten and second-seeded Marat Safin.

Kuerten, the French Open champion from Brazil, beat hard-hitting Croatian Ivan Ljubicic 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4. Safin was also stretched, with the Russian downing Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.

Sampras, who won at Foro Italico in 1994 and was seeded fourth this year, is still without a French title. And in his first clay-court match of the season, the serve-and-volley specialist showed no signs 2001 will be his year.

Coming off his seventh Wimbledon title last summer, Sampras has overhauled his training regimen to gear up for the French Open, the only Grand Slam title to elude him.

A viral infection caused him to miss the recent tournament at Monte Carlo, an important tuneup for Paris.

``I've been training a lot, running a lot to prepare for five-set matches at the French,'' Sampras said. ``It's disappointing to lose right away. You really need to get in a lot of matches.''

The match was suspended Monday following two rain delays with Sampras up 3-1 in the second set after dropping the first. While his serve was steady but never scorching, Sampras collected 35 unforced errors to Levy's 25.

``I'm used to dictating the game with my power,'' he said. ``But you can't always go for the big shots on clay, you have to be patient.''

Levy, who kept the 13-time Grand Slam champion off-balance with a mix of steady baseline play and occasional serve-and-volley charges, called the win was the biggest of his career.

``Today I played against my idol, which is a very difficult thing to do,'' he said. ``But I think I put my emotions aside and played pretty well.''

The European clay was even crueler to the ATP's top-ranked player.

Appearing impatient and off-rhythm, Agassi slapped at shots and tried for early winners as he racked up 35 unforced errors.

``I felt like I would work the point and work the point, hitting five or six good shots, and then miss the last,'' said Agassi, seeded third.

Agassi won at Roland Garros in 1999, but he will have to bounce back quickly if he hopes for his second French crown.

After capturing the top three tournaments of this year _ including his third Australian Open _ Agassi has stumbled. Last week, he lost in the first round of a clay-court tournament in Atlanta.

``I've been hitting a lot, but it's always different getting on the red brick in Europe,'' Agassi said. ``There's no way of preparing for it except to be over here.''

In other first-round matches Tuesday, Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov advanced when Romania's Andrei Pavel withdrew in the second set with back problems. Kafelnikov, seeded No. 5, was leading 7-5, 3-1.

Guillermo Coria of Argentina ousted No. 14 Jan-Michael Gambill 7-5, 6-4, and Wayne Ferreira of South Africa knocked off No. 16 Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia 6-2, 6-4.

Also advancing was No. 10 Alex Corretja of Spain, coming back from a set down to beat countryman Carlos Moya 5-7, 7-5, 6-1.

Other seeded players to advance were No. 7 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, No. 8 Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, No. 9 Tim Henman of Britain, No. 12 Sebastien Grosjean of France, No. 13 Thomas Enqvist of Sweden and No. 15 Franco Squillari of Argentina.

Michael Chang made the next round and countryman Todd Martin was knocked out in straight sets by France's Julien Boutter.

On Monday, defending champion Magnus Norman lost, beaten by Vincenzo Santopadre of Italy in straight sets.


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