Tennis: Agassi barring rise of Rios to the summit

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THE outcome of today's men's singles final at the Lipton Championships here will either mark the coronation of the Chilean Marcelo Rios as the first world No 1 from Latin America or underpin Andre Agassi's comeback as a force in the game - a win-win situation.

Agassi, ranked No 141 at the turn of the year, has charged his way into the top 20 and promises that this is not as good as it gets. "I don't know why they're talking Rios and Sampras," the 27-year-old from Las Vegas told the Centre Court crowd after his semi-final victory against Alex Corretja, of Spain, 6-4, 6-2. "At the end of the year I'm going to be ranked No 1."

That would delight spectators and promoters alike, for Agassi's charismatic career has been in limbo since his 30 weeks at No 1 after overtaking his American compatriot Pete Sampras in April 1995.

An Agassi renaissance would not surprise any of his recent opponents, particularly Corretja. "He's kind of a genius in tennis," the world No 8 said. "He makes you feel bad on the court because it seems you cannot do anything else but run. He wanted to be at the top level again, and he can play really good at the top level.''

A touch of showmanship would not go amiss, either, as Agassi showed on the penultimate point on Friday night. He dashed to the net for a drop shot, then chased to the back of the court in pursuit of a lob, whirling in full flow to deliver a breathtaking forehand pass.

The crowd was ecstatic, and Agassi deservedly milked the situation, twirling and pointing with his index fingers to all sections of the stands, his smile beaming. He then converted the match point with a topspin lob, raised his arms to the roars of approval, and bowed three times like Pavarotti on song.

By this time, Tim Henman, the British No 2, was preparing to pack and return to London before heading for Newcastle to join Greg Rusedski for the Davis Cup tie against Ukraine, which starts on Friday. Like Rusedski at Indian Wells a fortnight earlier, Henman had performed with distinction until confronted by Rios' dazzling groundstrokes.

"He's not giving away any cheap points," Henman said. "I think that is making life difficult for his opponents. Anyone who says that Rios doesn't have a big weapon is wrong. It may not be the speed which he hits the ball with, which with other people you might associate as a weapon, but he's got a deceptive serve and a good all-round game. His unforced errors from the baseline are minimal.''

Nobody doubts that the 22-year-old left-hander from Santiago has an abundance of talent, but his temperament has been known to let him down on the big occasion. The question being asked this morning is two-fold - a) will Rios freeze under the Florida sun the way he did when playing Petr Korda in the Australian Open final in January? and b) even if his nerve holds, will he be able to out-rally a revitalised Agassi over the best of five sets?

Rios appears to relish the challenge. "I've never played Andre, and playing him to be the No 1 player is exciting," he says. "He's going to be trying to get his ranking up. I think it's the best match you can have. Beating Agassi to be No 1 would be really, really good. I can't be more confident. I've been winning a lot of matches - winning easy matches, winning tough matches - and I feel pretty good."

Both players are guaranteed vociferous support. Agassi, who is bidding for a fourth Lipton title, has a massive following everywhere, and Rios, a big sporting figure in his own country, is not short of flag-waving compatriots, particularly in this bilingual part of the United States.

Then again, Rios had a fair amount of vocal support in Melbourne. "I was really disappointed losing like that with Korda," he says, taking some small consolation from subsequently defeating the Czech left-hander at Indian Wells. "After I beat him, I said to myself, 'Why didn't I play like that in the final?'"

A reporter, reminding Agassi that four years ago the New York Times described Rios as the Agassi from Chile, asked the American how he felt about playing against his clone. "I'm not sure if you just insulted me or gave me a compliment there," he replied. "I don't have long hair any more, man."

Agassi added, "You know, he hits the ball well. He takes it early. He has a good feel with his hands. He has a very efficient serve. He likes to utilise it, a lot like I do. It's not an overwhelming serve, but he definitely uses it to fit his style of play.

"I'm excited to play him. I want to go out there. I want to see it. I'm not worried about him until he gives me something to be worried about. 'You're going to have to prove it to me.' that's the element it brings. We're both going out there and have to prove to the other one that it's our day." May the best man - and tennis - be the winner.