It's Agassi's Race to lose

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After titling Sunday in Los Angeles I believe it's Andre Agassi's Champions Race crown to lose, with nothing but hardcourt tennis ahead of him for the remainder of the 2001 season.

The incredible Agassi opened a 54-point lead over French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten by virtue of his easy 6-4, 6-2 victory over Pete Sampras in their heavyweight final at the Mercedes-Benz Cup in southern California. Agassi, who also won the LA title in 1998, avenged a loss to Sampras in the 1999 LA final.

With 609 Race points, Agassi's closest competitors for the title of season- ending No. 1 are clay-court specialists Kuerten and Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain.

But with the clay-court season now behind us, Agassi is the clear-cut favorite to reign No. 1 by mid-November -- following the conclusion of the prestigious Tennis Masters Cup event in Sydney.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi won his fourth title of the season when he defeated Pete Sampras at the Mercedes-Benz Cup.
Agassi -- hands down -- is the best hardcourt performer on the planet right now, as evidenced by his four titles on the surface already this year. The Australian Open champ also captured back-to-back hardcourt tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami earlier this season.

Sampras tested Agassi in the first set at UCLA Stadium -- jumping out to a 4-2 lead -- but Agassi proved too strong by winning nine of the next 10 games to take the first set and open an insurmountable 5-1 advantage in the second against his long-time rival.

"Pete and I have had so many big matches and so many big finals," said Agassi.

"Pete had lots of chances in the first set, but I managed to pick up my game and used the momentum to sneak out the win."

With the big victory, Agassi improved to 14-17 lifetime against Pete, including 7-8 in their 15 career finals. Andre has also won their last three encounters, including a straight-sets victory in the Indian Wells championship match back in March.

In six tourneys this season, the papa-to-be Agassi is an almost-unstoppable 27-2 on hardcourts, with the setbacks coming against Greg Rusedski in the final in San Jose and Francisco Clavet in the opening round in Scottsdale.

Clavet went on to win the title in Arizona.

The resurgent Agassi appears to be getting better with age.

At 31, he's no spring chicken in the world of men's professional tennis, but he's in the best shape of his life and is committed to securing the world No. 1 perch again.

With seven months of the season down and less than four to go, Agassi has a 37-7 overall record and is in a great position to continue his dominance with a rash of hardcourt events -- and perhaps titles -- in front of him. His fourth title of the year gave him 52 for his up-and-down career, as only seven men have claimed more hardware on the circuit: Jimmy Connors (109); Ivan Lendl (94); John McEnroe (77); Sampras (63); Bjorn Borg (62); Guillermo Vilas (62); and Ilie Nastase (57).

Surprisingly, Agassi's title in LA marked only his first since he beat Jan- Michael Gambill at the Ericsson Open in Miami at the end of March.

The Las Vegas native, however, clearly has more on his mind than just tennis these days, as he and girlfriend Steffi Graf are expecting their first child -- a boy -- in December. That, combined with a first-ever Champions Race title, would surely be the greatest of Christmas presents for one of the game's all-time greats.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion would also like to add to that total with a victory at the U.S. Open in September. It's still only July, but Agassi is already the heavy favorite to run the table at Flushing Meadows, which he did in 1994 and '99. A third U.S. Open crown appears in the offing, although I think he could be challenged by youngsters Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, as well as veteran Patrick Rafter, starting in the last week of August at the USTA's sprawling National Tennis Center.

Kuerten (555 points) and Ferrero (505) are obviously right behind the mighty Agassi, but both of those players are still unproven commodities on the hard stuff. Yes, "Guga" stunned Agassi in the Tennis Masters Cup final in Lisbon last fall, but the amicable Brazilian still only owns two career titles off the dirt (Indianapolis and Lisbon in 2000). And don't forget, Agassi defeated Kuerten during the round-robin portion of the 2000 Masters Cup.

Agassi also stopped Kuerten in the semifinals en route to last week's championship in LA-LA land.

The powerful Agassi has done no worse than the quarterfinals in each of this year's previous Grand Slam events, as he captured the Aussie Open, reached the quarters at the French (Grosjean), and advanced to the semis at Wimbledon, where he lost to Rafter for a second straight year.

On looking forward to the rest of the summer, Agassi said: "My body feels good and I'm certainly excited to be playing in places like LA."

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