Tennis: Sampras hoping for pain-free showdownwith Agassi

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PETE SAMPRAS made a joke yesterday on the eve of the ATP Tour Championship here. Asked how his back was, the Wimbledon champion said: "So far, so good," adding, "the front is even better."

The organisers trust that Sampras was merely making light of the injury problems that have hampered his campaign during much of the season. Otherwise, Richard Krajicek, the substitute, could find himself competing in the eight-man field.

It will be a shame if Sampras is unable to do himself justice in the 10th, and concluding, men's tour finale on German courts, having qualified for the event every year since 1990. He has won the title twice in Hanover and twice in Frankfurt, and has been the dominating player of the decade, finishing the year as the world No 1 a record six consecutive times.

Andre Agassi has already interrupted Sampras's reign at the head of the game by gaining enough ranking points ahead of Hanover to guarantee his place at No 1 whatever transpires over the next six days. Few would begrudge Agassi his success, even though Sampras, currently ranked No 5, missed the start of the season, when he was resting, and was unable to play in the United States Open because of a back injury.

Although Sampras performed majestically to defeat Agassi in straight sets in the Wimbledon final in July, Agassi is the undisputed men's tennis champion of the year. His triumph at the French Open in June made him only the fifth man ever to complete a set of the four Grand Slam singles titles, and he went on to win the the US Open for a second time in September. Not bad for a player whose ranking was down to No 141 two years ago.

Provided Sampras is pain free, he and Agassi will play each other at least once this week. They are both drawn to compete in the Red Group in the round-robin segment of the tournament, along with two Latin Americans, Gustavo Kuerten, of Brazil, and Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador.

The two men with the best results will advance to Saturday's semi-finals to play the top two from the White Group, which comprises the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Thomas Enqvist, of Sweden, Todd Martin, of the United States, and Nicolas Kiefer, a local player who carries the hopes of Germany.

Kiefer and his compatriot Tommy Haas, who failed to qualify for Hanover, are attempting to keep interest in German tennis alive after the boom years created by Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Significantly, Wimbledon's profits, although pounds 30.2m, were down by nearly pounds 3m this year, chiefly because of reduced television revenue from the German market.

TODAY'S ORDER OF PLAY: (Play starts at 13.00 GMT): Red group: A Agassi (US) v N Lapentti (Ecu); G Kuerten (Br) v P Sampras (US). (Not before 18.30 GMT): White group: Y Kafelnikov (Rus) v T Martin (US).