Tennis: Agassi the ace at head of rankings

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI was formally installed last night as the world No 1 for 1999.

The Las Vegan was presented with a crystal trophy after becoming the first of the eight qualifiers to advance to the semi-finals of the ATP Championship here, after defeating Gustavo Kuerten, of Brazil, 6-4, 7- 5.

The match, although completed in an one hour and 34 minutes, gave Agassi an opportunity to display his skills against a fine opponent. Not only did Kuerten trade marvellous ground strokes and drop volleys with Agassi, but he also hit 13 aces, many of them saving break points.

Kuerten, having qualified for the year-end championship for the first time, has not had the kindest of draws, meeting Pete Sampras and Agassi in his opening round-robin matches, and losing to both in straight sets. The changing of the guard at the top of the men's game may take time.

After defeating Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, in the second of his round-robin matches, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was reminded that the new world rankings system, due to start in January, has arrived a year too late to spare his blushes as the player who rose without trace.

The Russian, it may be remembered, was elevated to world No 1 last May under the current revolving 52-week calculations, in spite of losing six consecutive opening round matches. In future, the men's rankings will be finalised at the end of each calendar year, so whoever wins the Australian Open will lead the race after the first major hurdle.

Given that situation in January this year, Kafelnikov's victory against Enqvist in the singles final at Melbourne Park would have saved confusion as to why the Russian's name was at the head of the list of runners in the ATP Tour rankings. "I appreciate the new system," Kafelnikov said.

"Whoever wins the Australian Open will be No 1 in the race. I think it's quite fair to everybody. Whoever is going to play best at the moment definitely deserves to be in the spotlight."

Kafelnikov, the world No 2, also made the point that it is not easy for six of the eight competitors in Hanover to find room in the spotlight, with Agassi and Sampras hogging the stage. "You guys have to realise it's not only a show between Pete and Andre anymore," he told reporters. "There are some other guys who also have big names.

"I don't only include myself, but players like Thomas Enqvist, Gustavo Kuerten, the guys who did well this year. You have to pay respect for what they're doing so far. I was pretty embarrassed to watch CNN this morning. As soon as the show started, they had Agassi and Sampras, and then, 20 minutes later, they had a small piece on the rest of the tournament. I care, not only about myself, I care about my fellow players who are making this Tour very successful."

Just as it is obvious why Agassi and Sampras attract the cameras, so it is clear how the other players can alter change the picture. "I have a desire to prove that I can sneak in between those guys here," Kafelnikov said. "It definitely would be the ideal thing for me to finish the year on such a positive note."

Kafelnikov's third consecutive win of the season against Enqvist provided the spectators with a close finish after sporadic bouts of exciting rallying interspersed with unforced errors by both players.

Early in the second set, Enqvist's concentration was disturbed by a shout from the crowd, and he asked the German umpire, Rudi Berger, to appeal for silence. At the end of the match, the Swede tossed his racket to his chair and had a lengthy conversation with the umpire, unhappy that his request for quiet had gone unheeded.

Enqvist recovered from 1-4 to 4-4 in the final set, only for Kafelnikov to hold serve in the next game and then make the decisive break after two hours and six minutes.

After that, the spectators raised their voices in support of the local boy, Nicolas Kiefer, who kept his prospects of advancing to the semi-finals alive by defeating the American Todd Martin, 6-3, 6-2.

Results, Digest, page 31