Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Tennis Masters Cup will be up for grabs -- not to mention the world No. 1 ranking -- next week, as seven of the ATP's top players, and Goran Ivanisevic, will do battle at the Sydney SuperDome.
They'll all be there: Sampras, Safin, Norman, Corretja??? Oops...sorry...that was last year.
This year's participants include some of the usual suspects -- Kuerten, Hewitt, Agassi, Rafter, and Kafelnikov -- and some not-so-usual suspects -- Ferrero, Grosjean and Ivanisevic.
The prestigious event invites only the world's top eight players, unless you won one of the year's Grand Slam events and finished outside the top 8, but inside the top 20 (see Ivanisevic). Personally, I think you should have to finish in the top eight to qualify, but I'm not on the board at the ATP (although I am available).
The French Open champion Kuerten will be the top seed in Sydney, but the Brazilian star stumbled to the finish line over the last two months, dropping six of his last seven matches, including a slide-starting quarterfinal whipping at the hands of Kafelnikov at the U.S. Open.
The U.S. Open titlist Hewitt is the favorite heading to Sydney, having won 17 of his last 19 matches, starting with the unstoppable run at Flushing.
The Australian Open champion Agassi will be the third seed in Sydney, but I'm not so sure he'll be ready to play Agassi-like tennis, considering he's failed to win a match since the fourth round of America's Open (0-3) and became a father for the first time just last month.
In case you haven't heard, former tennis great Steffi Graf recently became Agassi's second bride and the mother of their newborn son, Jaden Gil.
Okay, so you did hear about this one.
Ivanisevic was the year's other Grand Slam tournament winner, as the eccentric Croat upset Rafter in one of the most-electrifying Wimbledon finals of all- time.
More exciting than the McEnroe-Lewis final in '83, you say?
But who's kidding who, outside of Wimbledon Goran was a pedestrian 21-20, a record not worthy of the Masters Cup...or any cup for that matter? A Grand Slam win gets you in if you finish inside the top 20 by year's end. Ivanisevic finished at No. 13.
The rest of the field features non-Grand Slam winners Ferrero, Kafelnikov, Rafter and Grosjean, who qualified on the final day of the season by cutting down Kafelnikov in the Tennis Masters Series Paris championship match.
As far as the 2001 Champions Race is concerned, Kuerten currently holds a 48- point lead over Hewitt, who stands 39 points ahead of Agassi.
My feeling is that Hewitt will capture the Masters Cup, and, in the process, his first-ever world No. 1 ranking. He's certainly played the best tennis of the prospective participants lately.
Guga and Agassi are a combined 1-9 since coming up small in the Big Apple; Ferrero hasn't done a damn thing since the spring; Kafelnikov hasn't won a big event of any kind since last year's watered-down Olympic field; Rafter hasn't lifted a racquet since the Davis Cup semis in September; Grosjean probably will not duplicate his performance at the TMS Paris, where the Frenchman enjoyed some home cookin'; and Ivanisevic is banged up and still hung over from his unlikely victory at the storied All England Club.
Let's back-up to Agassi for a minute.
The American was basically left for dead heading into last year's Masters Cup in Lisbon before rattling off four straight victories (Kuerten, Kafelnikov, Norman, Safin) to reach the final, where Guga avenged his round-robin defeat at the hands of the American to become No. 1, the first-ever No. 1 from South America.
So, you can't count out Andre.
Australian Open champion Andre Agassi will be the third seed in Sydney, but he's failed to win a match since the fourth round of the U.S. Open. (Photo by Empics)
Prize money will abound in Sydney, as the eight players will divvy up $3.7 million -- with the winner guaranteed at least $700,000. An undefeated champion could bank as much as $1.52 million.
The 20-year-old Hewitt will try to become the youngest-ever year-end world No. 1, while the 31-year-old Agassi hopes to become the first-ever over-30 king of the courts.
Obviously, Hewitt and Rafter will be the fan favorites in their native land, but the three-time Aussie Open champion Agassi and 2000 Sydney Olympic gold medalist and 1999 Aussie Open titlist Kafelnikov have won their share of big matches Down Under.
Agassi claimed the ATP's season-ending event in 1990 and was the 1999 runner- up to his long-time rival Sampras. Kafelnikov reached the final in Hannover in 1997, losing to the great Sampras.
Does all this mean I'm discounting Kuerten, Ferrero, Grosjean and Ivanisevic?
You bet your boomerang it does, mate!
Don't expect a Masters Cup repeat from the ice-cold Kuerten. Don't expect last year's Davis Cup hero Ferrero to perform any last-minute heroics. Don't expect Grosjean to post a rash of upsets. And don't expect to see Ivanisevic ripping off his shirt or stripping down to his skivvies (as he did in his hometown of Split following the shocking Wimbledon victory).
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