Tennis: Rusedski can exploit Agassi's misfortune

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The Independent Online
GREG RUSEDSKI, looking businesslike in a pin-stripe suite yesterday as the substitute at the eight-man $3.5m (pounds 2.1m) ATP Tour Championship, may be pressed into action to replace the injured Andre Agassi in the same round-robin group as his fellow Briton Tim Henman.

Agassi, who strained his back in a fall while practising with Alex Corretja, of Spain, has been allowed to delay starting the tournament until tomorrow. "I jolted the back, and it went into spasms, and it's creating all sorts of havoc," Agassi said. "I still remain hopeful, but I don't want to jeopardise or hurt myself more by playing if I'm not 100 per cent sure."

Rusedski, who retired after pulling a hamstring during his second round- robin match last year, missed qualification this time by only 30 world ranking points. Should Agassi withdraw, Rusedski would join Henman in the White Group along with the Chilean Marcelo Rios, ranked No 2, and Corretja, ranked No 5.

"I wouldn't be honest if I said I didn't want to play," Rusedski said. "You don't want anybody to be injured, but only eight players are able to make these points at the end of the year, and it would be a chance to get into the top 10."

Henman, who played one match as a substitute for the Spaniard Sergi Bruguera last year, makes his debut on merit tonight against Rios, the only player in the tournament who can deny Pete Sampras a record sixth consecutive year as the world No 1.

Rios has won his two previous matches against Henman, both this year - in the semi- finals of the Lipton Championships on concrete in Florida in March 6- 2, 4-6, 6-0 and in the second round of the Italian Open on clay in Rome in May, 6-3, 6-1 (the slow clay is Henman's worst surface).

Henman was the only player to take a set off Rios at the Lipton, where charter flights from Chile arrived to cheer their sporting hero to No 1 in the world when he defeated Agassi in the final. "Coming into the Lipton tournament I was scraping the barrel for results," said Henman. "This is going to be my best opportunity."

Emphasising that "there are no easy draws here", Henman added: "I think it is fair to admit I was happy to avoid Mr Sampras."

The indoor concrete court at the Expo 2000 Tennis Dome here is, Henman says, "fair to everyone - the ball bounces high, and it's not particularly fast". He added that, win or lose, he has already made his mark on it, having skidded while practising in new tennis shoes.

Henman was defeated by Corretja in their only meeting, 6-3, 7-5 at the Paris indoor event last year. The British No 1 has split his two contests against Agassi, losing on concrete, 6-4, 6-4 in the Los Angeles final in August, and winning on carpet 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the final in Basle last month.

Sampras, the defending champion, needs to match Rios' progress this week to stay at No 1. "It's rare that you have in your hands a record that you can set forever," Sampras said. "Certainly this week I know that, but I can't worry about it. I can't dwell on it too much. I just have to go out and play the tennis I can play."

The American is in Red Group with Carlos Moya, of Spain, Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, and the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Sampras opens his campaign against Kafelnikov this afternoon, having won nine of their 11 previous matches.

Kafelnikov has been practising with Henman, having made up with the Briton after accusing him of a lack of respect for neglecting to apologise for net cords during their recent match in Paris. "I hit another net cord today," Henman said, "and put both hands up."

ATP TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP

(numbers indicate seeding)

RED GROUP

1 P Sampras (US)

4 C Moya (Sp)

6 K Kucera (Slov)

8 Y Kafelnikov (Rus)

WHITE GROUP:

2 M Rios (Chile)

3 A Agassi (US)

5 A Corretja (Sp)

7 T Henman (GB)

Semi-finals (Sat): Winners v runners-up from each group.

TODAY'S MATCHES

1pm start (GMT)

Sampras v Kafelnikov

Moya v Kucera

Rios v Henman

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