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Defense of U.S. Open Title Is Painfully Short for Rafter : Tennis: He joins Sampras on sideline after retiring in fifth set of opening match against Pioline because of sore shoulder.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Not unlike the heavy winds that swirled around here on the first day, Tragic Tuesday hit the U.S. Open, blowing out two of the game’s marquee players, Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter.

Sampras’ departure was announced in an afternoon news conference, during which he said he had suffered a herniated disk in his back and will be out for as much as two months.

Then, a few hours later, Rafter, the Australian who has won here the last two years and had been seeded No. 4, three spots below Sampras, retired after losing the first game of the fifth set against Frenchman Cedric Pioline. Rafter had injured his serving shoulder a few weeks ago during a tournament and had dropped out of that event. He had proclaimed himself healthy and ready to go here, but his service speed dropped noticeably as the match went on.

After winning the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4, he dropped the third set, 6-3, and the fourth, 7-5. And when he lost his serve on the first game of the final set, Rafter walked to the net and told Pioline he was sorry but that his shoulder was very sore and he couldn’t continue.

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“This is tough for the tournament,” Rafter said. “Pete was playing so well, and my form was good. I’ve been practicing hard, feeling great. That the shoulder went that fast on me really surprised me.”

Rafter’s departure meant that, for the first time in the 119-year history of the U.S. National tournament, the defending men’s singles champion was eliminated in the first round.

“I saw that his shoulder was sore in the third set [when the trainer started administering to Rafter during changeovers],” said Pioline, a former U.S. Open and Wimbledon finalist. “I saw that his serve wasn’t as powerful, so I became more aggressive, more confident.”

Rafter said he actually felt the pain--"terrible pain,” he called it--in the first set and added that, even with the discomfort, he had a tough time walking away.

“It’s just so tough to pull yourself off, no matter how you feel,” he said.

The departure of the Nos. 1- and 4-seeded players leaves the top half of the men’s draw wide open. The most notable survivors are Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil at No. 5, Todd Martin of the United States, who struggled for 3 hours 59 minutes and five sets before winning Tuesday, at No. 7, and Greg Rusedski of Britain at No. 9.

Pioline was asked afterward what he thought about Sampras being gone, Rafter being gone (and with them the last four U.S. Open titles), and even Britain’s Tim Henman, in the bottom half of the draw and seeded No. 6, being gone. He said, “Pioline is still here. It is good.”

A packed house in the evening session at Arthur Ashe Stadium had cheered Pioline on, as most crowds will do here when one player gets two sets down and the fans want to see more tennis. But when Rafter defaulted, the fans booed.

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“I didn’t think that was fair,” Pioline said. “If he gave up, it is because he had a serious problem. I mean, he’s defending champion here. He won the last two years. He loved the tournament. I think it’s not fair from the crowd.”

*

Alexandra Stevenson has not won a match on the tour since reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon. The losing streak continued Tuesday, as 11th-seeded Nathalie Tauziat of France defeated Stevenson, 6-2, 6-2, in 59 minutes.

Afterward, Tauziat suggested that the youngster succumbed to the newfound demands that have accompanied her recent success.

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“I think she had a lot of pressure, maybe more than me,” said Tauziat, 31, a finalist at Wimbledon last year. “She wanted to play well, but I did too. I used my best tennis today.

“She didn’t put too much on the court. There’s too many pressures on her right now and she can’t play her tennis.”

Stevenson thought otherwise.

“I don’t have any pressure,” she said. “I’m not seeded. I’m not the No. 1 player. I’m having a fun time. I’ve lost a couple matches, but I’ve lost to the tough players and there’s no pressure on me. You just have to go out and learn and play tennis.”

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To that end, Alexandra and her mother, Samantha, are moving from San Diego to Dallas later this month to work more closely with the USTA’s Craig Kardon, who has been her coach since the pre-Wimbledon tuneup tournaments.

Despite the loss, Stevenson said she learned a few things against Tauziat, a savvy veteran.

“When I hit a good shot, I need to come up to the net, not just wait for the next ball,” she said. “And I need to . . . know what I’m doing on the court because sometimes I’ll hit a really good shot and it will come back and then I’ll try to hit an even better shot when I could just hit a good shot and get it back in the court.”

The other seeded women all advanced to the second round. Defending champion and second-seeded Lindsay Davenport of Newport Beach defeated her doubles partner, Corina Morariu, 6-0, 6-3. Seventh-seeded Serena Williams was impressive in her 6-1, 6-0 victory against Kimberly Po, winning in 49 minutes.

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In addition to Rafter, two other seeded players lost on the men’s side: Guillermo Canas of Argentina defeated No. 6 Tim Henman of Britain, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 6-3. Hard-serving Wayne Arthurs of Australia beat No. 13 Alex Corretja of Spain, 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 7-6 (8-6). Arthurs had 38 aces, including one on Corretja’s match point in the fifth-set tiebreaker.

Staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.

Featured Matches

Today’s matches involving seeded players at the $14.5-million U.S. Open at New York:

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MEN

* Greg Rusedski (9) vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero

* Tommy Haas (14) vs. Thomas Enqvist

* Felix Mantilla (17) vs. Magnus Norman

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WOMEN

* Martina Hingis (1) vs. Sarah Pitkowski

* Venus Williams (3) vs. Anne-Gaelle Sidot

* Jana Novotna (8) vs. Tina Krizan

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* Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (10) vs. Nicole Pratt

* Barbara Schett (12) vs. Asa Carlsson

* Dominique Van Roost (13) vs. Rita Grande

* Amelie Mauresmo (15) vs. Mariaan de Swardt

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