TENNIS: Sampras in hundred club

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JOHN ROBERTS reports from Key Biscayne

Pete Sampras may not be in a league of his own, but he is keeping excellent company as only the fifth player to reign as the world No 1 for 100 weeks since the ATP rankings began in 1973.

Neutralising Andre Agassi's determined challenge for another week by advancing to the last four of the Lipton Championships here, the defending champion became the latest centurian in a vanguard of Ivan Lendl (270 weeks), Jimmy Connors (268), John McEnroe (170) and Bjorn Borg (109).

Victory against the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in the quarter-finals today, following Tuesday night's fourth-round win against Germany's Bernd Karbacher, would guarantee Sampras's place at the head of the game for another two weeks.

While proud of his status, the 23-year-old Wimbledon champion remains unhappy with the ATP Tour rankings system he has dominated with only a minor interruption since overtaking Jim Courier on 12 April, 1993.

In common with other leading players, Sampras is in favour of change, even though the principal priorities he supports would be likely to place Agassi, the United States Open and Australian Open champion, above him.

The current system is based on a player's best 14 tournaments over a rolling 12-month period, which means losses can be discarded without penalty.

"You've got a lot of the guys in the top 10 playing a lot of tennis, but on the other hand I think every time you walk on court it should count," Sampras said. "That is just not the case right now. And I don't think it looks good from a PR standpoint.

"Every time you win, you should be rewarded. If you lose, you should be put down. I don't agree with a ranking system where some matches don't count."

The ATP Tour is in the process of debating alternative systems, and the Grand Slam committee (the chairmen of Wimbledon and the French, United States and Australian championships) has suggested possible improvements.

Like Sampras, the Grand Slam committee considers that every performance should count, to maintain the integrity of every match. The committee also contends that Grand Slam tournaments should be worth at least double the points awarded for the highest-rated ATP Tour events, and that points should be awarded at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich.

The International Tennis Federation has experimented with several rankings systems incorporating the Grand Slam committee's proposals, one of which currently elevates Agassi above Sampras. One notion discussed and discounted by the ATP Tour was a ranking system running from January to December each year. "It sounds like a really good idea to have a race, and it would be a lot easier for the fans to understand exactly how it works," Sampras said, "but the actual details of trying to pull it off are pretty much impossible."

He added: "I have heard one proposal to have your year-end ranking count for the next six months. I don't agree with this, because if you lose, or have a bad first three or four months, your ranking should drop.

"I guess the bottom line is to try to win and let the ranking take care of itself."

Steffi Graf advanced to the women's singles semi-finals, though the defending champion was uncharacteristically error-prone while defeating Natasha Zvereva, 6-4, 7-6. Zvereva the first player to take a set from Graf last year, in the final here, ought to have achieved at least that, but Graf held on in spite of hitting 34 unforced errors. She now plays Jana Novotna, the third seed, who beat Germany's Anke Huber, 7-6, 6-4.

Gabriela Sabatini, the 1989 champion, will play Kimiko Date. Sabatini, the fifth seed, advanced by defeating the unseeded Australian, Rachel McQuillan, 6-1, 6-3. Date, the seventh seed, ended the progress of Marianne Werdel Witmeyer, 6-1, 7-5. The Californian had eliminated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the world No 1, in the third round.