Tennis: Ivanisevic set to finish year on a high note: Croat closes on meeting with a world No 1 dressed to kill with lucrative new clothing contract

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GORAN IVANISEVIC, who gave Boris Becker a hard time in the semi-finals of the ATP Tour Championship here a year ago, has earned another chance to reach the final. Today another German, Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, stands between the Croat and an opportunity to end a troublesome season on a high note.

One certainty is that Ivanisevic will have to improve on his performance last night in defeating Stefan Edberg, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, to qualify for the last four from the round-robin. Though he delivered 20 more aces, the Croat was insecure when it came to closing out sets. He was broken serving for the first set, and then missed the chance to finish the job and shorten his night's work after breaking Edberg for 5-4 in the second set.

Fortunately for Ivanisevic, his opponent gave an error-strewn performance. Edberg, who contributed to a wonderful match with Pete Sampras, the world No 1, though losing in straight sets, delivered nine double faults on this occasion and was also loose with crucial volleys. Ivanisevic, who experienced breathing difficulties, which he attributed to nervousness, in his previous match against Sergi Bruguera, again used an inhaler to help him through the match.

In today's other semi-final Sampras plays the 19-year-old Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, the first teenager to advance to the last four of the tournament since Becker in 1986.

Dollars continue to pile up for the leading players in spite of rumours that the the mega-million tennis industry has awakened to the recession. Sampras has agreed a new clothing contract believed to be worth dollars 18m ( pounds 12.5m) over three years - six times more than his current agreement.

The 22-year-old American will continue to be dressed by the Italian Sergio Tacchini until after the defence of his Wimbledon title next June. He will then join his compatriots, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe at Nike.

Courier signed a five-year deal worth an estimated dollars 24m after becoming the world No 1 last year. Agassi was Nike's first major tennis investment, a multi-coloured flagship whose terms are a matter of speculation. McEnroe, like Sampras, was persuaded to take the Oregon trail from Tacchini.

It is interesting how Sampras came to be signed by Tacchini. An Italian journalist, who had been asked by the company to scout for new talent, was recommended by an American colleague to 'look at the future of American tennis' in a match between a couple of juniors at the United States Open. The player the American had in mind was Michael Chang. Since then Sampras has won dollars 9.3m. His immediate concern is winning today.

Sampras was not seriously troubled in his three round-robin matches, finishing with a 6-3, 1-6,

6-3 win against Bruguera last night. Medvedev, by contrast, lost his opening match against Stich in straight sets. He was then reprieved by Courier, who squandered four match points between reading a novel, and was able to capitalise on Chang's lack of mobility, due to a back injury. Chang, who led by a set and 4-1, was defeated, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

'I needed to have luck, and I got it,' Medvedev said. 'To play the No 1 in the world is something very special. Pete showed strong tennis in his matches here this week, and last week in Antwerp. If I lose, I will go for a vacation, but I will die to win.'

These days, the competitive edge is sometimes more apparent off the courts them on them. One of Sampras's early successes was achieved at the Manchester grass court tournament in 1990. The pre- Wimbledon event has not only lost its sponsor, Direct Line Insurance, but is facing increasing pressure from a rival tournament in Germany.

Organisers of the Gerry Weber Open announced yesterday that prize-money next year would be raised to dollars 525,000 from dollars 375,000 and that four of the top 10, Courier, Stich, Medvedev and Cedric Pioline, had already agreed to play.

The pre-Wimbledon Beckenham tournament, sponsored by Direct Line, will also face competition for players from an ATP Tour challenger event scheduled for the same week in Carinthia in Austria.