Who's on top is iffy Down Under

Sampras, other top seeds among men aren't on roll

Australian Open

January 14, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - For those who would pick Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi to win the Australian Open, be aware that one of them won't make the semifinals.

The draw two days ago put the former two-time Australian champions in the same quarter of the draw for the first Grand Slam event of 2001, beginning in Melbourne tonight, which is tomorrow in the United States.

Agassi says he is as sharp as a year ago, when he beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the final, but Sampras is in a funk. Sampras, seeded third, has lost six of eight matches since the U.S. Open final, and he will be endangered from the start in Australia, with Karol Kucera up first.

"I'm not thinking about Andre yet," Sampras said. "I've got my hands full with trying to get past Kucera, a very dangerous first-round opponent."

No. 2 seed Marat Safin, who crushed Sampras in the U.S. Open final, is not a good bet, either. After a 6-2, 6-1 beating from Nicolas Escude last week, Safin complained of an elbow injury. "It's difficult to play the game without a serve," he said.

If Safin can play, he could atone for the embarrassment of being fined last year for not trying in a first-round loss to Grant Stafford.

Gustavo Kuerten, the No. 1 seed, shelled Agassi two months ago in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup. But the Brazilian's Australian Open record is 3-4, including a first-round loss in 2000.

Safer choices include 1999 champ Kafelnikov and 2000 semifinalist Magnus Norman. Patrick Rafter, who said he will retire after this year, will be the choice of Australian fans.

On the women's side, the favorites are clear.

"I would say Venus [Williams], [Lindsay] Davenport and [Martina] Hingis," Serena Williams said last week of the No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1 seeds, respectively. "They will probably be my main threats, especially Venus because she's playing very well. But I'm up there."

Monica Seles is the fifth wheel, but she was winless last year against the big four. Mary Pierce's shoulder has not been well since she won the French Open, and she has complained recently about a sore ankle.

The tournament's decision to revert to Rebound Ace, a slower surface, could help Hingis against the sluggers.

In looking at the draw, defending champ Davenport is a better bet. She does face Jelena Dokic in the first round, prompting Jelena's father, Damir, to accuse the tournament of fixing the draw, but Davenport appears safe to the final.

Hingis and Serena Williams are seeded to play each other in the quarterfinals, with the winner to face Venus Williams.

Venus Williams, who has won the past two Slams at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, has not played a singles match since October, while catching up on her studies at a fashion-design school.

"I refuse to kill myself," she said. "Tennis is just not my life."

In doubles, Atlanta's Ellis Ferreira returns as a defending champion but without retired partner Rick Leach. Ferreira also found out last week that new partner John-Laffnie de Jager's right wrist still is injured.

"I called Rick to see if he wanted to come down," Ferreira said, "but he couldn't." Ferreira will play with David Rikl.(Seedings, Page 13d)

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