Tennis: Sampras stands between Kiefer and final place

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST roar of approval here yesterday greeted Nicolas Kiefer after the local boy defeated Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov to advance to today's semi-finals at the ATP Tour Championship. The second outpouring of enthusiasm, rising in a crescendo, came moments later when the announcer told the crowd that Gerhard Glogowski, the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, had resigned following allegations of corruption.

It would take something special to top that roof-raiser, but it could happen this afternoon if Kiefer beats Pete Sampras to reach Sunday's final on his debut at the championship.

Sampras's place in the last four was secure as soon as he won the opening set of his concluding round-robin match in the Red Group against Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, last night. Sampras won, 7-6, 7-6.

Kiefer overcame Kafelnikov, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, a result that means Kafelnikov, second in the White Group, will play Agassi in the semi-finals. Once Kafelnikov had lost the opening set against Kiefer so easily, the majority of the 13,500 spectators settled down to enjoy what they anticipated would be a stroll through the second set for the Hanover man. Kafelnikov's pride came into play in the second set, and it was not until Kiefer broke for 3-1 in the final set that a sense of well-being was restored.

On a day of innovation, when it was confirmed that a new calendar-year men's ranking system - ATP Champions Race 2000 - will be launched in January, it was pleasing to acknowledge the success of something as delightfully old-fashioned as a wood court.

Wood, the fastest indoor surface on which to play tennis, used to be the dread of players facing the big servers of yore, such as the American Ellsworth Vines. Nowadays, a wood base coated in synthetic provides a medium pace fair to various styles of play, whether predominantly baseline or serve-volley.

The surface, GreenSet On Wood, was introduced at the ATP Tour Championship here in 1997, when Sampras defeated Kafelnikov in the final. Last year, two Spaniards renowned for their expertise on slow clay contested the final, Alex Corretja defeating Carlos Moya. This week, while advancing to today's semi-finals without conceding a set, Agassi mastered the Latin American back-court skills of Lapentti and Gustavo Kuerten and the attacking game of his compatriot Sampras.

Some of the rallying, particularly in the Agassi-Kuerten match, has been breathtaking. And yet the surface did not prevent Todd Martin, whose solid attacking game and steady groundstrokes took him to the final of the United States Open on concrete courts last September and to the brink of the Wimbledon final on the lawns in 1996, from making a stirring contribution yesterday. A wood court is a winner, provided it is not supporting wooden players.

Unfortunately for Martin, his rush of form to defeat Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 6-4, 6-1, in his concluding round-robin match came too late to save the American from elimination.

In welcoming the new calendar-year race, Mark Miles, the ATP Tour's chief executive, said: "The fundamental thing is that it is not a revolving 52-week system. We aren't going to see those things which we've seen in the past in the rankings.

"The best example for me might be what happened at Wimbledon this year. Andre Agassi loses to Pete Sampras in the final, and in losing to Pete Sampras becomes No 1 in the world. In a calendar-year race, that just doesn't happen."