Houston will host battle for No. 1

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the fourth time in four years the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup will decide the year-end No. 1 in men's tennis, with this year's edition of the event being held in Houston next week.

American superstar Andy Roddick and Spanish slugger Juan Carlos Ferrero have the best shots at the coveted year-end No. 1 spot, while Wimbledon champion Roger Federer still has a mathematical chance to claim the crown. Roddick will try to give the U.S. its first year-end No. 1 since Andre Agassi in 1999, while Ferrero and Federer will attempt to give Spain or Switzerland, respectively, its first-ever No. 1 star.

The high-flying Roddick currently leads Ferrero in the world rankings (4,335-4,205) and ATP Champions Race (867-841), while Federer rests in third. The "Fed" would fall from year-end No. 1 contention should the U.S. Open titlist Roddick win one match or the French Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Ferrero wins two at Houston's Westside Tennis Club.

Andy Roddick
Roddick is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and also leads the ATP Champions Race.
Roddick, Ferrero and Federer are joined in the exclusive eight-man international field by Guillermo Coria, the Australian Open champ Agassi, Aussie Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler, Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian, who along with Coria gives Argentina two players in this season-ending event for the first time in 21 years (Jose-Luis Clerc, Guillermo Vilas in 1982).

The hard-hitting Roddick and always-cool Federer led the ATP with six titles apiece in 2003, and the Fed paced the circuit with 73 match victories (73-17) in his best-ever season. Roddick and Ferrero also enjoyed career years.

Roddick, Coria, Schuettler and Nalbandian will make their Masters Cup debuts, while Ferrero will make his third straight appearance, Federer will enjoy his second consecutive trip, Agassi qualified for a 13th time and Moya is making his fourth overall appearance. Ferrero was last year's Masters Cup runner-up to Lleyton Hewitt in Shanghai, while Agassi claimed the title back in 1990 and was the runner-up in 1999 and 2000.

Just this week, the 21-year-old Roddick gained the world No. 1 ranking for the first time in his blossoming career. Since losing to journeyman Sargis Sargsian in the opening round of the French Open, Roddick has posted a blistering 44-5 ATP mark, including five of his six '03 titles, all under the tutelage of former Agassi coach Brad Gilbert, who became a Roddick employee the week after Roddick's stunning exit at Roland Garros.

Roddick is the sixth American to hold down the top spot since the rankings system began in 1973 and the youngest since John McEnroe. The other world No. 1 Americans were Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and the ageless Agassi, who became the oldest-ever No. 1 during this entertaining '03 season, one in which four different players held the top spot (Hewitt, Agassi, Ferrero, Roddick).

Juan Carlos Ferrero
Ferrero has the best shot to overtake the powerful Roddick in Houston.
Agassi will play his first tennis since the birth of his (and wife Steffi Graf's) second child and his disappointing semifinal loss against Ferrero at the U.S. Open in early September. That's a two-month layoff for those of you scoring at home, which means the legendary star probably doesn't have a chance of titling in Houston. Agassi and Graf celebrated the birth of daughter Jaz Elie early last month in Las Vegas.

The 33-year-old Agassi, who is at least 10 years older than the top four seeds, is already in Houston even though the first singles matches don't begin until next Monday. The popular star holds a winning record against all the Masters Cup qualifiers except for Ferrero (1-3) and Nalbandian, whom he has never played.

Agassi is a brilliant 44-8 this year.

The 23-year-old Ferrero was the only man to reach two Grand Slam finals this year and became the first man since Ivan Lendl in 1980 to win more than 30 matches on both clay and hardcourts. The "Mosquito" will lead Spain when it meets host Australia in Melbourne in the Davis Cup final later this month.

Of the eight combatants in Houston, three have held the world No. 1 ranking (Ferrero, Agassi, Moya) and one currently holds it (Roddick). Agassi beat Roddick in an all-American final at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston back in April, but the Masters Cup surface will be an indoor hardcourt.

Should anyone decide to pull out with an injury in Houston, Wimbledon runner- up Mark Philippoussis would get the nod as the alternate. The oft-injured "Scud" could very well be called to duty, as Federer is nursing a bad back, Moya is slowed by a sore shoulder and Nalbandian has been plagued by a left wrist problem.

The aforementioned Hewitt, despite claiming the year-end No. 1 ranking in both 2001 and '02, failed to qualify for the Masters Cup tourney this year, mostly due to inactivity (a mere 12 tournaments in 10 months). He also only reached just one quarterfinal (U.S. Open) in the four Grand Slam events this season.

Any one of the eight men can win the title in Houston, but only an American (Roddick), Spaniard (Ferrero) or Swiss (Federer) will be No. 1 when the smoke clears in Texas.

The total Houston purse is a lofty $3.7 million.

Scott Riley
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