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RASH OF INJURIES IS HURTING THE FIELD

The French Open seems cursed before it has even begun. A rash of withdrawals and injuries has ravaged the field of the Grand Slam event starting Monday at Roland Garros.

Several big names, including Boris Becker and Gabriela Sabatini, are already out. Others - Pete Sampras, Monica Seles and Thomas Muster - are hurting and may not be able to go the distance.Never in recent years has the French Open been so jinxed. Virtually every day this week has brought news of more casualties.

"It really opens up the draw for many players," tournament director Patrice Clerc said, trying to put the best face on the situation. "But at this time of the season, we always have players injured."

Up until a few days ago, the only certainty seemed to be that Muster was a big favorite to retain his men's title. Now even that is questionable.

Muster suffered a badly sprained ankle in practice Thursday and had to pull out of a tournament in St. Poelten, Austria, ending his run of five successful clay-court title defenses this year.

The Austrian, seeded and ranked No. 2 behind Sampras, was later pronounced fit to play in Paris, but there must be serious doubts about whether his ankle can hold up through grueling, five-set matches.

There are similar worries about Seles and Sampras, who were also affected by injuries in recent days.

Seles, seeded co-No. 1 with Steffi Graf, pulled out of the Madrid Open on Friday because of persistent pain in her right shoulder. Seles, who struggled through her first match in Madrid after an injury layoff of nearly four months, remains entered for the French, but there is a chance she could bow out before her first-round appointment.

Paris is special to Seles because she won the first of her nine Grand Slam titles here in 1990 at the age of 16. She won again in 1991 and 1992, but her streak ended when she was stabbed by a spectator in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993.

Sampras suffered back spasms that forced him to pull out of a match Thursday at the World Team Cup in Duesseldorf. He's set to play in Paris, but his back problem, a nasty draw and lack of clay-court matches do not bode well.

The list of wounded goes on and on.

- Becker, the Australian Open champion who was the No. 5 seed, withdrew this week with a pulled thigh muscle.

- No. 4 Michael Chang, the 1989 champion and last year's runner-up, comes to Paris after pulling out of last week's Italian Open with a chest muscle injury.

- Two-time champion Sergi Bruguera is still struggling to regain top form after a foot injury suffered in December.

- Michael Stich, the 15th seed, is playing only his second tournament since returning from ankle surgery in March. "My foot still hurts," he said last week. "I'm not fit at all."

- Sabatini, a six-time semifinalist at the French, was forced out with a stomach muscle problem.

- Chanda Rubin, a quarterfinalist last year who was seeded No. 7 this year, dropped out with a wrist injury.

Among the men, No. 3 Andre Agassi is the only player ranked in the top 5 who has not reported any injury problems of late. But even he is a big question mark.

Agassi played only one clay-court tournament this spring and the results were not promising. He was whistled off court after giving a half-hearted effort in a 6-2, 6-1 loss in Monte Carlo to Spain's Alberto Costa, a strong French Open contender. Agassi then pulled out of tournaments in Barcelona and Hamburg and turned down a wild-card invitation for Rome.