Agassi victory lifts Roddick to No 1 ranking

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The Independent Online

Andre Agassi righted himself quickly enough to beat Juan Carlos Ferrero and give Andy Roddick the year-end No. 1 ranking.

After a miserable 1 set and a half, Agassi suddenly began finding his strokes and came back to stun Ferrero 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the Tennis Masters Cup.

Ferrero fell to 0-2 in the round-robin portion of the $3.65 million tournament and can't possibly qualify for the semifinals, which means he won't accumulate enough points in the last event of 2003 to pass Roddick.

Agassi (1-1) can reach the semifinals by beating No. 8 David Nalbandian next.

Roddick, meanwhile, didn't have to set foot on court Wednesday. He replaced Ferrero - the man he beat in the US Open final - at No. 1 in the ATP Tour computer rankings last week and, at 21, will be the third-youngest player to close a season there.

Roddick (1-0) faces No. 6 Rainer Schuettler on today.

In yesterday's other match, Wimbledon champion Roger Federer defeated Nalbandian for the first time in six pro meetings, 6-3, 6-0. Agassi's win over Ferrero allowed Federer (2-0) to claim a semifinal berth.

Through the first 15 games, Agassi had 24 unforced errors to Ferrero's nine. Agassi was slow afoot and just kept missing shots he usually at least keeps in play.

The turning point probably came with Ferrero serving in the fourth game of the second set, when Agassi slapped a weak forehand into the net to make it 30-love. After the shot, Agassi cracked his racket violently against his foot, drawing a warning for racket abuse from the chair umpire.

While Agassi lost the next four points - a backhand error and ace to end that game, and a double-fault and backhand error to start the next - he then started to show the skills that helped him win eight Grand Slam singles titles.

Both players held serve through the second set's seventh game, and then Agassi pounced. He hit a forehand winner down the line to get a break point, and a sizzling return resulted in Ferrero putting a backhand into the net.

With a 5-3 edge in hand, Agassi pumped his fist, while most of the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

When Agassi laced a backhand winner down the line to win the second set, he clearly was in control. Ferrero, meanwhile, was reeling, no longer able to dictate points.

Agassi got the only break of the third set in the third game, ending it with another brilliant backhand down the line. From there it was just a matter of holding serve the rest of the way, and Agassi managed that, closing his comeback with a forehand winner.

It was a result that hardly seemed possible at the start.

Ferrero broke for leads of 2-1 and 5-2 in the first set, ending each of those games with forehand return winners. When he struck a forehand winner off Agassi's short return just 23 minutes into the match, Ferrero owned the first set - and he had surrendered all of three points on his own serve.

The only player at the Tennis Masters Cup with a winning career record against Agassi (3-1 before yesterday), Ferrero beat him in the US Open semifinals in early September. That was Agassi's last competitive outing before coming to Houston.

In May, the 33-year-old Agassi became oldest man ranked No. 1. He has slipped to No. 5, in part because of his recent layoff, but he is still the oldest player to qualify for the ATP Tour's season-closing event since Jimmy Connors was 35 in 1987.

Now Agassi helped Roddick join the elite group who have ended a season on top. And only Connors in 1974 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2001 were younger than Roddick.

Roddick clearly had the potential as a teen to reach such heights, but as recently as 2000, he was winning the US Open junior title.

He played just nine pro matches that year, finishing it ranked 158th. He ended 2001 at 14th.

Roddick began this season at No. 10, and he really broke through, reaching his first career Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open, repeating that placing at Wimbledon, and then winning his first major at the US Open.

Capping 2003 by winning the Tennis Masters Cup would give Roddick a tour-high seven titles.