Tennis: Rafter races towards his No 1 target

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The Independent Online
PAT RAFTER is in the pink, from the health of his game to the colour of the mottled shorts he is wearing at the Italian Open here. The 26-year-old Australian, who is able to adapt his natural attacking style to all surfaces, is only three matches away from becoming the world No 1, thanks to his confident form and the faltering of his rivals.

Less than two hours after Yevgeny Kafelnikov was presented with the ATP Tour's No 1 Trophy on the Centre Court at the Foro Italico, marking the Russian's rise to the top on 3 May in spite of six consecutive first round defeats, Rafter applied pressure by advancing to the quarter-finals by beating Andre Agassi 6-1, 7-6.

Kafelnikov followed Rafter on court and was defeated by Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian former French Open champion, 7-6, 6-1, having created two set points with his opponent serving at 5-4 in the first set. Carlos Moya, of Spain, who held the No 1 position for two weeks in March, had already lost his opportunity to return there by losing 6-3, 7-5 to Franco Squillari, an Argentinian "lucky loser" who took the injured Todd Martin's place in the draw.

Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, who has dominated the world rankings for six years, and Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, also started the week with a chance of ending it as No 1, but both were beaten on Wednesday.

Rafter needs to win the tournament in order to add the No 1 ranking to the United States Open title he has held for the past two years. He would become only the 17th player to reach the top since the ATP computer rankings started in 1973 although, since Sampras began to show signs of wear, the last three (Marcelo Rios, Moya, and Kafelnikov) have arrived in a rush.

Today Rafter plays Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, who defeated Britain's Greg Rusedski in the second round and saved two match points against Nicolas Kiefer in the second set yesterday before overcoming the German 3-6, 7- 6, 6-3.

Agassi cut a pathetic figure in the interview room, his naked torso covered by a towel draped over his left shoulder and tape strapped across his chest and dodgy right shoulder, which was iced to allay further injury problems. But the Las Vegan's tone conveyed anything but self-pity. "I played like a schmuck; I am a schmuck," he said.

After a promising opening game, in which he created a break point, Agassi suffered agonies of insecurity for the rest of the set, which was completed in only 27 minutes. Rafter, serving with impressive consistency, was able to feed off Agassi's errors and vary his attacks with compact volleys and accurate groundstrokes. "It's the best I've played in a long time," Rafter said.

"Credit to Pat," Agassi said. "I couldn't get to his serve, and I didn't make the necessary adjustment. I didn't get used to the structure or the pace of the points. On clay, I'm not used to playing somebody who doesn't give a lot of pace, who comes in and plays a lot of under-spin."

Events got worse for Agassi before they got better. He lost his serve in the opening game of the second set and trailed 0-2 before producing glimpses of his former brilliance. He saved a match point with a forehand winner at 4-5, 30-40, and went on to break Rafter for 5-5 with a backhand return. "It's better than being a schmuck the whole match," Agassi said.

"Andre was only an inch from getting right back in the match," said Rafter, who started the tie-break as briskly as each of the sets and secured a place in the last eight by winning the shoot-out 7-4. "I got tired towards the end of the match, and Andre picked his game up," Rafter added. "In the past I've always had trouble with him."

On this occasion Rafter had a spot of bother with the umpire and was given a time violation for tidying his ponytail hairdo, which fell loose as he battled for a point. "I was trying to clip my hair back," he said. "The clip is like equipment, like a racket. I don't stall usually. I wasn't trying to break the rhythm of the game."

If Rafter achieves nothing more this week, he has provided the beaded Williams sisters with a neat footnote to their monthly newsletter.

The younger Williams sister, Serena, won twice yesterday to advance to the quarter-finals of the German Open in Berlin. Williams rolled past Jennifer Capriati 7-6, 6-3 then returned an hour later to beat another American, Lisa Raymond, 6-1, 7-6.

Martina Hingis, the world No 1, also won easily, beating Russia's Elena Lichovtseva 6-4, 6-1. The third seed Steffi Graf advanced by struggling to a 7-6, 6-2 win against Zimbabwe's Cara Black, while Arantxa Sanchez Vicario beat her fellow Spaniard and defending champion, Conchita Martinez, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5.

Results, Digest, page 31