Agassi bars Rusedski route to higher rank

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The Independent Online

Sponsorship of the men's and women's tournament here has ranged from Lipton's tea to the Nasdaq stock market during the past 18 years, with a few calls on Ericsson's mobile phones in between. The event, the last played on concrete before the start of the European clay court season, remains the most prestigious outside the four Grand Slams. We trust that the Nasdaq-100 Open, which starts today, will not have as many shunts going into the first bend as the Indianapolis 500.

Greg Rusedski, for example, needs a decent run to boost his confidence and raise his ranking after losing to Julien Boutter, of France, in the second round in Indian Wells, California, last week, where Tim Henman, his British Davis Cup team-mate, reached the final.

If Rusedski, who tweaked his neck while practising yesterday, successfully negotiates a first-round match against Sargis Sargsian, he will face another player with Armenian roots: Andre Agassi, the 31-year-old defending champion, who has been given a bye as one of the 32 seeds.

Rusedski, 30 places above Sargsian at No 38 in the ATP tournament entry system, has played the Armenian twice before, losing to him in straight sets on grass in the quarter-finals of the 1999 Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club, London, and defeating him in straight sets indoors on concrete in Tashkent in 2000.

Agassi has won six of his eight previous matches against Rusedski, beating the British No 2 most recently in Scottsdale, Arizona, two weeks ago, 6-4, 6-4. Rusedski's two victories against the Las Vegan both came in San Jose and by the same score, 6-3, 6-4, in the semi-finals in 1997 and the final in 2001.

Henman, seeded No 5, will play a qualifier in the second round. Drawn in the opposite half of the draw to Rusedski, the British No 1 is projected to meet Roger Federer, of Switzerland, in the fourth round and either Tommy Haas, of Germany, or Sweden's Thomas Enqvist in the quarter-finals. Lleyton Hewitt, who outplayed Henman in Indian Wells last Sunday, could be waiting for him in the semi-finals. Alternatively it may be Pete Sampras.

It was here last year that Sampras described Andy Roddick as "the future of American men's tennis". Roddick, the 10th seed, is being touted as the player most likely to engage in a long-term rivalry with Hewitt. "I have to win one before it's a rivalry," Roddick says. "It's not a rivalry if someone is up 4-0 or 5-0 on you. Hewitt is better day in and day out than I am right now. He's top three in mentally tough players in the game. I'm not." Their next battle of wits cannot come before the final here.

Martin Lee and Jamie Delgado were unable to join Henman and Rusedski in the main draw. Lee, ranked No 95 lost in the qualifiers to Jeff Morrison, an American ranked 139, 6-4, 6-0, and Delgado, ranked 156, was defeated, 6-0, 4-6, 6-2, by Noam Okun of Israel, ranked 58 places above him, at No 108.

Jennifer Capriati, who has reclaimed the world No 1 ranking from Venus Williams, and Daniela Hantuchova, who defeated Martina Hingis in the Indian Wells final, could meet in the women's semi-finals.

Capriati held eight match points against Venus Williams before losing to her American compatriot in last year's final. They are projected to meet in the final, before which we may see the latest instalment of the Williams sisters, Venus versus Serena, in the semi-finals.