Kuerten, Safin, Sampras: Who's gonna be No. 1?

Riley Logo PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - With this highly-entertaining 2000 ATP Tour season entering its stretch drive, who will be No. 1 when the campaign comes to a close? Will it be French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, U.S. Open titlist Marat Safin, or Wimbledon king Pete Sampras?

The Brazilian Kuerten currently tops the new-for-2000 Champions Race with 649 points; while the Russian Safin is a close second with 639 points; and the American Sampras is third with 637. The three stars are the only players on tour this season to capture a Grand Slam title and a Tennis Masters Series tournament.

This year's Australian Open champ, American superstar Andre Agassi, faded fast after titling against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Melbourne back in January. Agassi is now eighth in the Champions Race, 231 points off Kuerten's pace.

With only 11 tournaments remaining on the 2000 schedule, including the all-important season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, the top spot is still very much up for grabs. The Tennis Masters Cup will be a $3.7 million event that features the top-8 players in the Champions Race following the conclusion of the November 20-26 tournaments in Stockholm and Brighton.

The most important events between now and the November 27- December 3 Tennis Masters Cup will take place in Stuttgart and Paris -- a pair of Tennis Masters Series (formerly Super 9) events. All the world's top players will be on hand for those tourneys, with key Champions Race points on the line.

In addition to his French Open Grand Slam victory, Kuerten also owns one Tennis Masters Series championship this year -- capturing the title in Hamburg, where he subdued Safin in the final. The U.S. Open champion Safin claimed a Tennis Masters Series event in Toronto, which included a quarterfinal upset against Sampras; and Sampras, the runner-up to Safin at the U.S. Open, prevailed at the Tennis Masters Series tournament in Miami, where he cut down Kuerten in the final. The season's other Tennis Masters Series champs thus far are Spaniard Alex Corretja (Indian Wells); Frenchman Cedric Pioline (Monte Carlo); and Swedes Magnus Norman (Rome) and Thomas Enqvist (Cincinnati). Norman's victory in Rome came against Kuerten.

Norman is currently fourth in the Champions Race, with 586 points, but he's had very little success since finishing as the Roland Garros runner-up to Kuerten back in June.

With none of the remaining tournaments to be staged on Kuerten's beloved surface of clay, expect Safin or Sampras, who captured last year's season-ending event in Hannover, to come out on top this year. The last 11 events will be played indoors on carpet or hardcourt, with the only exception being the outdoor-hardcourt tournament on display this week in Shanghai.

Kuerten only has one career non-clay title to his credit -- this season's RCA Championships in Indianapolis, where he again outdueled the "Russian Rocket," improving to 2-0 against Safin in 2000.

Does Kuerten's non-clay-court success remind you of anyone? Perhaps Thomas Muster comes to mind.

Sampras hasn't played any tennis since losing badly against Safin on Championship Sunday in the Big Apple. His Pistolness recently married beautiful actress Bridgette Wilson, which, for the time being, has taken some of his focus off tennis. Pete could fall into the category of ATP players who perform poorly once they get married (see also Agassi).

The great Sampras has claimed only two titles this season; while Safin has piled up five and Kuerten four. But Kuerten, whose recent results have been disappointing and puzzling, hasn't hoisted hardware since winning at Indy in August; and Safin has dropped his last two matches after titling at the U.S. Open and Tashkent on successive Sundays.

Norman and Kafelnikov, currently fifth in the Champions Race, have extremely-outside shots at the 2000 title, but don't count on either one of them overtaking Guga, Super Safin of Pistol Pete. Norman owns four titles this year, but the majority of his damage came early in the campaign. And Kafelnikov's only championship of the season came at the Sydney Olympic Games, where he had to outlast an underachieving Tommy Haas in the gold medal match.

When the Tennis Masters Cup rolls around, Sampras, a six-time year-end No. 1 before Agassi ended his reign in 1999, will be seeking his sixth title at the lucrative season-ending event.

Agassi has qualified for this year's Tennis Masters Cup by virtue of his Grand Slam title. Lleyton Hewitt, Corretja and Enqvist are also battling for spots in the lofty Lisbon tourney.

Kuerten and Sampras will return to action in Stuttgart at the end of this month, while Safin will return next week at the Kremlin Cup on his native turf of Moscow. Rest assured, Guga will not title in Stuttgart. Safin and Sampras will look to supplant Kuerten atop the Champions Race within the next two or three weeks.

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