Young guns climb ATP ladder

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Instead of talking about the Roger Federers, the Rafael Nadals and the Andy Roddicks of the world this week, let's take a look at a few of the quiet young climbers on the ATP tour.

Since the 2006 season got underway back in January, five men have shot up at least 34 spots on the rankings chart, including youngsters Nicolas Almagro, Kristof Vliegen and Marcos Baghdatis. The other two are tour veterans Luis Horna of Peru and Nicolas Massu of Chile.

Almagro is a 20-year-old Spaniard, who, as you would imagine, loves playing on red clay. He's already 14-5 this season, including his first-ever title in his first-ever final last month in Valencia. And on his way to the title in Valencia, Almagro toppled former world No. 1s Juan Carlos Ferrero (1st round) and Marat Safin (semis). He beat his fellow Spaniard Ferrero once again in Barcelona two weeks later and also tackled former French Open runner-up Guillermo Coria in "Barca" before succumbing to the current king of clay, the 2005 Roland Garros titlist Nadal.

Nicolas Almagro
Spaniard Nicolas Almagro is 14-4 on clay this year, including a title in Valencia last month.
The Murcia native Almagro reached the semifinals in Barcelona and Acapulco and the quarterfinals in Santiago and Costa do Sauipe and is a quality 14-4 on clay in '06. His lone match off the dirt this year resulted in an opening- round setback at the hardcourt Australian Open.

The 6-foot Almagro, who turned pro in 2003, started the year at No. 111 in the world, but his recent clay-court prowess has him up to No. 46, a whopping surge of 65 spots.

That's hot!

Not to be outdone, the 23-year-old Vliegen has vaulted 45 spots in the rankings, from a season-opening No. 95 to his current spot of No. 50. At the time of this article, the lanky 6-foot-4 Belgian is a surprising 18-9 this year, including a pair of victories at the BMW Open in Munich this week.

The Maaseik native, who's still seeking the first title of his ATP career, has reached a pair of semifinals this season, in Chennai and Memphis, and a quarterfinal, in San Jose. He also won a pair of matches at the Aussie Open, where he ultimately bowed out in the third round at the year's first major.

Vliegen has some really nice wins this season against the likes of American James Blake and 2004 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, but, just like Almagro, he was in over his head against the amazing Nadal, who dropped the Belgian in a third-rounder at the Monte-Carlo Masters last month.

Moving on.

The 20-year-old Baghdatis has cooled off since his startling run into the Aussie Open finale back in January. Through the Aussie Open, the excitable Cypriot was 8-3, but since then he's 7-4 and hasn't gotten past the quarterfinals in four events. In Melbourne, Baghdatis piled up win after win, including monster ones over the former world No. 1 Roddick, high-flying Croat Ivan Ljubicic and Tennis Masters Cup champion David Nalbandian of Argentina.

The 6-foot Lima Sol native, who joined the pro ranks in '03, opened the year at No. 56, but he's up 34 spots to No. 22 on the planet. And I think it's safe to say he's the best-ever player from Cyprus.

Like Vliegen, Baghdatis is still in search of his first-ever championship on the ATP. He's 0-2 in his career finals, including a loss to the mighty Federer in Melbourne in January. His other title bout setback came in Basel last season.

And just like Almagro and Vliegen, Baghdatis has also lost to the fiery Nadal this year, with the setback coming in a quarterfinal at the Masters Series tourney at Indian Wells.

I'm not overly excited about Vliegen's or Baghdatis' chances at the upcoming French Open, but don't be surprised if Almagro makes some noise at Roland Garros 2006, which will get underway in less than four weeks in Paris.

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Scott Riley
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