Hewitt and Agassi aim for top spot

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Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi each retain a fighting chance of ending the year as the world's top-ranked player after seeing off Sebastien Grosjean and Pat Rafter respectively on the opening night of the season-concluding Masters Cup in Sydney yesterday.

The South Australian and the Las Vegan are the only men who can prevent Gustavo Kuerten from winning the Champions Race for the second consecutive year. The Brazilian, who overcame a 75-point deficit to topple Marat Safin in Lisbon last year, has been in indifferent form for the last two months.

Hewitt, the US Open champion and home favourite, rallied from a set down to beat Grosjean 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. "I got off to a shaky start. I had a few nerves," said the world No 2. "As soon as it got into the third set, it was a dogfight. It's nice to get through the first match."

Agassi, who defeated Rafter 6-2, 6-4, showed no signs of sleep deprivation. His wife, Steffi Graf, gave birth to their son, Jaden Gil, two weeks ago. The Australian Open champion and third-ranked player said he was "out here quite single-minded, trying to get my game to a level it was at earlier this year".

Kuerten, the three-times French Open winner, is with Goran Ivanisevic, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the other group of the round-robin event. Kuerten was to play Ivanisevic, the unexpected Wimbledon champion, in his first match tonight.

Hewitt, who has played relatively little since his triumph in New York, initially appeared rusty and was overwhelmed by the Frenchman's powerful forehand. But he dusted off the cobwebs in the second set, while Grosjean fell apart, making a series of errors that gave Hewitt two service breaks.

With the crowd at the Sydney Superdome behind him, Hewitt emitted his customary exhortation of "C'mon!" and proceeded to wrap up the match in 110 minutes. Grosjean will have a chance for revenge when the two men meet in the Davis Cup final in Melbourne at the end of this month.

The 20-year-old Australian will be the youngest end-of-season No 1 if he manages to overtake Kuerten in Sydney. Agassi, at the grand age of 31, will be the oldest. Neither of them will achieve the feat unless they win the tournament.

Rafter, who plans to take a break at the end of the year, was keen to perform well on home ground in what could be his last tournament appearance. But Agassi took just an hour and 13 minutes to dispose of the Wimbledon runner-up, winning six consecutive games in the first set and breaking Rafter's serve early in the second.

The American faltered briefly in the second set, dropping his serve and swatting a ball into the crowd in frustration after giving Rafter a break point at 3-3. But he regained his composure, won the next three games and served the match out to love. He will play Hewitt tomorrow night, while Rafter next meets Grosjean.

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