KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Before three became one, the trio of players capable of taking the top spot in men's tennis from Pete Sampras had one Grand Slam title among them.
There was Marcelo Rios of Chile, dubbed "the Most Hated Man in Tennis," by Sports Illustrated earlier this month.
There was 30-year-old Petr Korda of the Czech Republic--the sole member of the trio to win a Grand Slam event [this year's Australian Open]--who is talking more about retirement than No. 1.
And there was the hard-serving Greg Rusedski of Britain, who reached the U.S. Open final in 1997, despite being the owner of an in-and-out backhand. Not inside-out, mind you, but sometimes in the court and more often out of it.
By Friday, Rios was the only one capable of ending Sampras' reign of 102 consecutive weeks at No. 1.
He kept inching forward and can reach the top with a victory over Andre Agassi in the final of the Lipton Championships. Rios' three-set semifinal victory over Tim Henman on Friday sent Chilean camera crews in search of interviews with his father, Jorge, and coach, Larry Stefanki.
Much has been written about the person, but not the player. With his small size, 5 feet 9, and baseline strokes, there is a tendency to compare Rios, 22, to Michael Chang. But that's not entirely accurate, either.
For one, Rios is left-handed. And has a decent serve with the ability to place it and kick it into his opponent's body.
"If you're saying Rios doesn't have a big weapon, I think you're wrong," Henman said. "He has a deceptive serve, moves it around a lot. On his second serve, it's kicking into your body a lot. His unforced errors from the baseline are really minimal. He doesn't miss too many balls. When he wants to, he can come into the net and finish the points with good volleys.
"On his passing shots, he's got pretty short swings, so he takes the ball early. That doesn't give you so much time to get into the net."
If anything, Rios could be on the verge of taking advantage of a rare opening at the top, stepping into the breach when Sampras is showing rare vulnerability. The last time Sampras lost the top spot was when Thomas Muster sneaked in for six weeks at two different times in 1996 before Sampras finally reclaimed No. 1 in April 1996.
Champions of Sampras' stature don't falter very often.
After all, it's rare when Sampras double-faults on his own match point the way he did in eventually losing to Wayne Ferreira at the Lipton. But his crisis of confidence is being viewed on the men's tour as a temporary lapse, rather than a serious matter.
Sampras said he felt like "Rhode Island," comparing his defeat to Rhode Island's last-minute collapse against Stanford in the NCAA basketball tournament.
"After five years, you have to have a bad patch somewhere," Ferreira said. "It's taken him a few years. For most of us, it takes a couple of months."
Said Agassi: "I think we're all a little shocked by it. He's gotten us used to him being the best.
"You know, I don't count him out. He's proven too much to me for me to think that he's going to let things slip. Besides, if he starts dropping too far, I'll start giving him a hard time. That'll get him back into it."
IS IT THE SHOES?
As always, Jeff Tarango had his own take on the slump of Sampras.
Tarango thinks Nike is getting ahead of itself with its commercial of Sampras' chase of Roy Emerson and tennis history.
Emerson has 12 Grand Slam singles titles to Sampras' 10.
"I think he's seen the light at the end of the tunnel and it's making him a little nervous," Tarango said. "You know, I think Nike pushed him to make some comments that he probably shouldn't have made.
"I think the commercial was a little premature: 'I'm knocking on the door of history'? I'd like to see him win another Grand Slam before he made a commercial like that. I think that's too bad because I think he's God's gift to tennis."
Apparently, 20-year-old Julian Alonso of Spain, who is ranked No. 43, is smitten with 17-year-old Martina Hingis. Before Hingis lost to Venus Williams, the biggest news on the Hingis beat was that she had a boyfriend. This sent scribes from Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland in search of the story.
Alonso is a rising star in Spain and has been picked to play in Spain's upcoming Davis Cup matches against Brazil. About Hingis, Alonso had a few things to say to a Madrid newspaper, mainly: "Martina es muy quapa."
Translation: Martina is very cute.
WINDS OF CHANGE?
There have been low-level discussions about the Lipton changing to a clay-court event as early as 2000 because of a schedule imbalance, that is, too many hard-court events.
Unfortunately, a change could affect the tournaments at Indian Wells, Calif. Instead of Indian Wells acting as a final tuneup to the Lipton, theoretically, the desert events could lose a player or two. Potentially, some players might want to train on clay before the Lipton and skip Indian Wells.
With both Indian Wells and the Lipton having great success the last decade--a friendly rivalry, actually--it would seem ill-advised to tinker with a popular formula.
"It would be a step down," Agassi said. "It would be terrible to go from hard court to clay. There is plenty of time to get ready for the French Open."
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Consecutive Weeks at No. 1
Men who have remained at the top of the rankings the longest:
Jimmy Connors: 160 weeks, starting July 29, 1974
Ivan Lendl: 157 weeks, starting Sept. 9, 1985
Pete Sampras: 102 weeks, starting April 15, 1996