Norman conquest topples Agassi from pole

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Magnus Norman nudged Andre Agassi off the top of the ATP Champions Race yesterday after swatting a weary Lleyton Hewitt 6-3 6-0 in the semi-finals of the Italian Open. In today's final, Norman will play Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian defending champion, who defeated Alex Corretja of Spain 6-4 6-3.

Retaining a sense of perspective, Norman emphasised that he is far from adding to the Swedish legacy of Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. "I don't want to say I'm No 1 in the world. I'm No 1 in the [year-long] Race," Norman said. "I don't want to compare myself to Sampras and Agassi. They're way above me."

Norman, due to mark his 24th birthday on 30 May, is the fifth player to lead the Champions Race in its first season (Hewitt, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Fabrice Santoro and Agassi are the others). In the 52-week ranking system, now used for entries and seedings, Norman is No 4 this week.

"At the end of last year I was a bit negative about the Race," he said, "But from now until the end of the year it's going to get more exciting. When I hit the match-ball I was very relieved, because there's been a lot of talk about the No 1 position."

Norman has yet to drop a set this week, whereas Hewitt fought through three sets in three of his four previous matches and also competed in two three-set doubles matches. "I definitely wasn't feeling 100 per cent out there today," Hewitt said.

The 19-year-old from Adelaide, who has won three tournaments this season and led the table after the opening two weeks of the year, needed to win the title here to return to the top. Hewitt realised he had to stay with Norman in the early exchanges to avoid a repetition of his straight-sets defeat by the Swede in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January. Although he recovered a break at 0-2 in the opening set, Hewitt double-faulted to present Norman with the break points that took him to 3-1.

After netting a makeable backhand half-volley on the second set point, Hewitt became a subdued opponent, unable to raise either his game or his spirits. The second set was almost embarrassing. Hewitt won only 10 points - four of them from 0-40 in the concluding game, when he managed to save four match points. Norman converted the fifth after 62 minutes, his powerful forehand drive offering Hewitt little scope, and his forehand reply landed in the net.

"I'm going to learn from this week, and hopefully it's going to improve my preparation for the French Open," Hewitt said, having made many friends with his earlier performances in what was his first clay-court tournament of the year. He now goes to Hamburg. where he has been drawn against fellow Australian Mark Philippoussis in the first round.

Norman is looking forward to his first final in a Masters Series event, although he did reach his first Grand Slam singles final at the Australian Open, losing in straight sets to Kafelnikov.

An excited Italian television interviewer said to Norman, "Magnus, we don't know anything about you. Tell us, who are you?"

"Two years ago I beat your Davis Cup team in the final," Norman said. "I'm surprised you don't remember me."

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