Agassi the Flushing pride as Brits prepare for collision

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The Independent Online

As ever, a few ambitions are certain to be shattered at the US Open, starting tomorrow in New York. Pete Sampras, in search of a 14th Grand Slam; Marat Safin, seeking to retain the men's championship after a dire season; Martina Hingis, trying to renew acquaintance with big-time success; and, of top interest around these parts, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, dreaming of progress deep into the second week.

One may make it, both certainly won't, since they are drawn to collide in the fourth round, always provided they manage to get that far. Henman's ninth seeding does not, fortunately, depend on previous feats of derring-do at Flushing Meadows, since Tim has only twice got as far as the last 16 in six attempts. A quarter-final spot this time round would be most welcome.

As for Rusedski, this is the venue of his best Grand Slam showing, runner-up to Pat Rafter four years ago. Greg has battled back from his annus horribilis to earn a seeding, albeit it 30th, under the new system of 32 seeds. In Rusedski's terms that is real progress from last year, when form and good health were hard to come by.

The men's draw is unbalanced to an embarrassing extent, with the bulk of the hard-court kings in the bottom half. Among the 64 names in the top, Todd Martin is the only one to have reached a final here. That said, the area where Henman and Rusedski find themselves is a haven of opportunity. Henman will start against a qualifier before a possible second round with the Brazilian clay specialist, Fernando Meligini, and then, perhaps, a third-round clash with either Fabrice Santoro, the double-handed, London-based Frenchman, or Belgium's Xavier Malisse, now under the tutelage of Henman's former coach, David Felgate.

Win those three, Tim, and you could be taking on Greg, always provided Rusedski – he of the booming serve and fragile confidence – can propel himself past the Moroccan, Younes El Aynaoui, then Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden or Spain's Juan Balcells, and next, probably, the eighth-seeded Frenchman, Sebastien Grosjean.

Should all those hurdles be safely vaulted, a Brit quarter-final could loom with Safin, provided the Russian has assembled his act sufficiently to get through what look like some undemanding contests early on. The other quarter of the lower section of the draw is the cruncher in which only one out of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Rafter – winners between them of eight of the last 11 US Opens – can even get as far as the semi-finals. Also in that part of the combat zone are Roger Federer, the Swiss who ditched Sampras' dreams at Wimbledon, the giant Dutchman Sjeng Schalken and the top German, Nicolas Kiefer.

Without a win since Wimbledon last year, Sampras has slipped to 10th seed and may not survive a fourth round against Rafter, who is in rich form as he chases his third US Open crown, having reached four consecutive finals, winning in Indianapolis. Agassi, too, can be content with having won 20 of his last 23 on hard courts. At 31, the second-seeded father-to-be and bridegroom-in-waiting is an object lesson in how to keep ambition and ranking flourishing.

The top seed, French champion Gustavo Kuerten, has begun to show his class of late on surfaces other than clay and should sail through his part of the field, though Wayne Arthurs, the big-serving Australian left-hander who beat him in the first round last year, is again lurking. Kuerten could also meet Goran Ivanisevic, but will be content that lightning is unlikely to strike twice for Croatia's Wimbledon champion, though the youngsters, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, threaten in later stages.

The women's title has been won for the last two years by the Williams sisters, Serena in '99 and Venus in 2000. Once again, Richard Williams seems to have prepared his daughters to a fine pitch for another challenge, and Venus will be confident of repeating last year's Wimbledon-US Open double. Though lack of tournaments has dropped Serena to 10th seed, the Williams girls are in opposite halves, so it could be a family final.

Jennifer Capriati looks the best bet to spoil the Williams's day. Holder of the Australian and French titles and seeded second, she is scheduled to come up against Venus in the semis. With the seedings based on world rankings, the official favourite is Hingis, the 1997 winner. She will sail through the early rounds but nowadays can no longer cope with the big boomers. Martina may even find a resurgent Monica Seles too much in the quarter-finals.

So take your pick for a Williams family champion, with Agassi to win the men's for a third time.

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