Tennis: Wooden courts to encourage fairer contests

ON A DAY of innovation, when it was confirmed that a new men's ranking system for the calendar year - 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 player Ellsworth Vines. Nowadays, a wood base coated in synthetic material provides a medium-pace surface that is fair to both baseliners and serve- volleyers.

The surface, GreenSet On Wood, was introduced at the ATP Tour Championship here last year, when two Spaniards renowned for their expertise on clay contested the final, Alex Corretja defeating Carlos Moya. This week, while advancing to today's semi-finals without conceding a set, Andre Agassi mastered the Latin American backcourt skills of Nicolas Lapentti and Gustavo Kuerten and the attacking game of his compatriot Pete 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 ground strokes 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.

Whatever changes the ATP Tour organisers introduce in the months ahead, when their Masters Series of nine events will continue to offer half the number of points to be gained at the four Grand Slams, the wood-based court is to be transferred from Hanover to Lisbon for next year's Tour finale.

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, after Germany's Nicolas Kiefer overcame Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. That result means that Kafelnikov will play Agassi in the semi-finals, and Kiefer will meet either Sampras or Kuerten.

Martin was pleased simply to have won a match. "I just stopped trying to play well and focused on winning," he said. "I got a little embarrassed yesterday with the way I was playing [against Kiefer]. So, if nothing else, I made it up in my own mind not to make quite so many errors today."

Enqvist provided the majority of errors, particularly on the forehand. "I felt a little bit tired and didn't move well," the Swede said. "And I have to say that Todd played very well."

In the other match, once Kafelnikov had lost the opening set 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 Kiefer, the local boy. However, Kafelnikov's pride came into play and it was not until Kiefer broke for 3-1 in the third set that a sense of well-being was restored.

Earlier, in welcoming the calendar-year ranking, the ATP Tour's chief executive, Mark Miles, said: "The most 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.

"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."

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