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At the Net. . .

By Scott Riley
Tennis Editor

Calling all stars!!

Riley Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Americans Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are still the ruling powers in men's tennis. But which current ATP performers -- let's say under the age of 25 -- are the future of the game?

Let's take a look.

A couple of obvious choices as rising stars would be current ATP Champions Race leaders Gustavo Kuerten (KEER-ten) and Magnus Norman.

The 2000 French Open finalists are both hitting their stride heading into their tennis primes.

The 23-year-old Kuerten outdueled Norman to win this year's French Open, giving the Brazilian star a second title at Roland Garros. "Guga" also corraled the storied Parisian event in 1997 at the tender age of 20 -- marking his first-ever championship on the ATP Tour.

Norman, meanwhile, is a 24-year-old who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Swedish tennis greats Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Eberg.

Both Kuerten and Norman turned pro in 1995 and have been making steady progress on the world tennis stage since then.

The lanky, 6-foot-3 Kuerten not only leads the 2000 Champions Race -- which determines the top player in a given season -- but also has rocketed his way up to No. 2 in the official world rankings -- the ATP Singles Entry System. Only Agassi stands in the Brazilian's way atop the ledger.

Kuerten, who possesses a strong serve and big ground strokes, has reached six finals this year -- winning four of them. He captured a tourney in Chile before also titling in Hamburg (Tennis Masters Series), Paris (Grand Slam) and Indianapolis. His championship round losses came against Sampras, in Miami (Tennis Masters Series), and Norman, in Rome (Tennis Masters Series).

"Guga" owns nine titles -- all since 1997 -- and is also one of the sport's most amicable stars.

Norman has appeared in four finals this season, winning three. The titles came in Auckland, Rome and Bastad -- in his native Sweden.

The 6-foot-2 Swede, who displays a solid all-around game, had been atop the Champions Race for six weeks before being supplanted by Kuerten earlier this month.

Norman, who currently rests third behind Agassi and Kuerten in the world rankings, has piled up 10 career titles -- all since 1997. And, along with Sampras and Agassi, Norman posted a circuit-best five championships in 1999. A Swede hadn't led (or in this case tri-led) the Tour in trophies won since Edberg (along with Frenchman Guy Forget) garnered six of 'em in 1991.

Kuerten and Norman are joined by two other rockets on the rise -- youngsters Marat Safin of Russia and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.

The 20-year-old Safin, perhaps the game's hardest and cleanest hitter, turned pro in 1997, while the teenage Hewitt, an aggressive baseliner, made the move to the big show in '98.

The 6-foot-4 Safin, who also boasts a blistering serve, is having a tremendous 2000 season. He's currently fourth in the Champions Race and sixth in the world rankings.

Safin is a five-time finalist and three-time titlist this season. His championships came in Barcelona, Mallorca and Toronto (Tennis Masters Series), while both title match losses came against Kuerten, in Hamburg and Indy.

The Moscow native, who in my opinion has superseded Yevgeny Kafelnikov as Russia's premier player, owns four career titles -- all over the last two campaigns.

Needless to say, the future looks bright for this sizable righthander.

Hewitt, meanwhile, is a tenacious 19-year-old who is currently ninth in both the Champions Race and world rankings.

After losing to the talented Aussie at this year's grass-court Stella Artois final, Sampras, arguably the greatest lawns player of all-time, called Hewitt "the future of tennis." I guess only time will tell.

Hewitt has cooled off following a torrid start this season, having not advanced to a final since mid-June (Stella Artois).

But, he is a perfect 4-0 in as many title matches this year.

The young Aussie has hoisted hardware in Adelaide and Sydney -- on his native Down Under turf -- as well as Scottsdale and London in 2000.

Hewitt has notched six titles overall on the ATP Tour -- all since 1998. He also helped the Aussies capture the 1999 Davis Cup, and played a key role in the Australians' return to this year's Cup final (December, vs. Spain).

I don't want to overlook any other potential sub-25-years-of-age stars, so let's give honorable mention to 20-year-old Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero and 23-year-old German Nicolas Kiefer.

Ferrero is having a nice season, but Kiefer has struggled in 2000 after finishing 1999 as the sixth-ranked player in the world.

Kiefer, in fact, became the first German since Boris Becker (1996) to finish in the year-end Top-10.

But Kiefer, who typically possesses an effective serve, formidable forehand and great speed, has plummeted to No. 14 in the world this year, while Ferrero, who was ranked No. 43 at the end of last season, has soared to No. 12.

Kiefer did, however, outlast Ferrero in this year's Dubai Open final.

Ferrero, who features a huge ground game, also reached the title match in Barcelona, where he succumbed to Safin.

So, is there another Sampras or an Agassi in the bunch...or will the game starve for stars when the Americans hang up their sneaks, rackets, sweatbands, etc.?

Stay tuned to see who, if anyone, will assume the throne of world tennis supremacy.


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