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Gritty Canas leads Argentine charge

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The name Guillermo is a familiar one to tennis fans in Argentina, but it's Canas, not Vilas, currently helping to take the sport to new heights in the economically-depressed South American country.

Canas is just one of four Argentines currently in the top 20 of the ATP's Champions Race, with all four placing within the ledger's top 18.

The hard-working Canas is fresh off his remarkable championship run at the prestigious Tennis Masters Canada event in Toronto, where he blitzed four top-10 stars and five seeded performers en route to his second title of the year, including a stunning straight-sets victory over American sensation Andy Roddick in the hardcourt final. The improbable victory gave Argentina its first Canadian tournament winner since the legendary Guillermo Vilas in 1976.

Canas' championship was worth $392,000 and pushed his 2002 winnings over the $1-million mark.

Guillermo Canas
Guillermo Canas is just one of four Argentines currently in the top 20 of the ATP's Champions Race.
The 24-year-old is now seventh in the Champions Race, while his fellow countrymen David Nalbandian (14th), Gaston Gaudio (15th) and Juan Ignacio Chela give the rising tennis nation a quartet of young, potential-top-10 stars.

Nalbandian recently went all the way to the Wimbledon final, an incredible achievement for a clay-courter who was appearing in his first-ever ATP-level grass-court tournament. He also became the first South American man to reach the Wimbledon final since Peru's Alejandro Olmedo turned the trick and won the coveted title way back in 1959. Last year, Canas became the first Argentine since Jose-Luis Clerc in 1979 to reach the fourth round at the storied All England Club.

Canas, Nalbandian, Gaudio and Chela have all titled at least once this season, with Canas and Gaudio each boasting a pair of crowns on the circuit. Both of Gaudio's titles have come on clay, a surface in which he is a gaudy 28-6 this year.

Up to and including the TM Canada, Canas, Nalbandian, Gaudio and Chela are a combined 144-68 with six titles in '02.

Throw in Mariano Zabaleta, and Argentina boasts five of the top-35 players in the ultra-competitive Champions Race.

If Canas, who has been described as a South American version of feisty Australian world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, can hold onto his top-eight position, he would represent Argentina at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai in November. The exclusive tourney invites only the top-eight finishers in the Champions Race, and typically includes the year's Grand Slam event winners.

And did I mention that the upstart Argentines are still alive in the 2002 Davis Cup World Group. They'll battle the Marat Safin-led Russians next month for the right to play in the final in late-November/early-December. And earlier this season, it was the rapidly-rising Canas and unheralded Jose Acasuso leading Argentina to victory at the ATP World Team Championship -- a clay-court French Open tune-up in Dusseldorf, Germany -- where Canas and Co. whipped the Safin-led Russians, 3-0.

Obviously, this group of young Argentines is still a far cry from the great Vilas, who is tied for fifth (Bjorn Borg) all-time on the men's side with 62 career titles, including four "major" championships. But their continued hot play this season could lead to bigger and better things down the road, like a Grand Slam tournament title, perhaps one on the red clay at the French Open, where Canas lost to eventual champion Albert Costa in five sets in the quarterfinals in June. The high-flying Gaudio and Zabaleta joined Canas up until the fourth round at Roland Garros, as Gaudio lost to eventual finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero, while Zabaleta gave way to two-time French Open runner-up Alex Corretja.

With his huge victory in Toronto, Canas became the first-ever Argentine to hoist a Tennis Masters Series trophy, and also proved that he can play, and play well, on all surfaces -- clay, grass, hardcourt, or otherwise.

I don't think that the likes of Vilas or Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona will have their sports icon status surpassed by the likes of Canas, Nalbandian, Gaudio or Chela any time soon, but the success of these athletes is a much-welcomed shot in the arm for a nation in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history. And it didn't help the country's morale when its beloved soccer team shockingly failed to get past the first round at the recent FIFA World Cup.

Scott Riley
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