Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Tennis Notebook: Nieminen is in with Finns

By Neil Schmidt and Gary Estwick
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Jarkko Nieminen
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        MASON - Call Jarkko Nieminen an ambassador of tennis. Nieminen wants his favorite sport to catch on in Finland, his native country. But to do that, he must persuade his countrymen to pick tennis over soccer, basketball and just about every winter sport.

        “I'm working on it,” said Nieminen, ranked 35th in the world.

        He might have gained a few fans after his first-round match Tuesday at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters. Nieminen, 21, rebounded against 14th-seeded David Nalbandian - who reached the Wimbledon final in July - to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the ATP Tennis Center.

        Nieminen's victory made him the first Finn to win in Cincinnati. Two others - Olli Rahnasto (1989) and Aki Rahunen (1990) - have played in the tournament.

        Nieminen will play Korean Hyung-Taik Lee at 11 on Court No.4. Lee advanced to the round of 32 by beating Bohdan Ulihrach 6-3, 7-5.

        Nieminen said tennis isn't popular in Finland because of long winters and a lack of courts, especially in small cities such as his hometown, Masku (population about 5,000). Even Nieminen might not have taken up tennis at age 4 if his parents, who are chemists, didn't teach the sport.

        His popularity in Finland has soared in recent months.

        In October, Nieminen qualified for the main draw in Stockholm, then won four matches before losing in the final. About 1.5 million of Finland's five million residents watched him on television.

        “Young kids are starting to play tennis instead of just winter sports,” Nieminen said.

        Last year, he became the highest-ranked player from Finland to end the season in the top 100 of the ATP rankings, finishing at No.61.

        WILD CARDS HOT: Three of the four wild cards won first-round matches. Michael Chang upset third seed Tommy Haas, Taylor Dent upset ninth seed Thomas Johansson, and Jan-Michael Gambill beat Magnus Norman. The lone wild card to lose was Jeff Morrison, to Fernando Vicente.

        The last time three wild cards won here was in 1997 - those were Haas, Justin Gimelstob and Sjeng Schalken. The tournament gave five wild cards that year.

        DENTING RANKINGS: Dent, a 24-year-old Californian, is on the hottest streak of his career. He has won 11 of his last 14 matches, including one for his first ATP Tour title last month in Newport, R.I., and has jumped in the rankings from No. 116 at year's end to a current high of No. 67.

        Dent plays Marcelo Rios today in the second round.

        Rios said becoming the world's No.1 player again isn't a goal he plans to accomplish in the near future; getting healthy is.

        Rios, ranked 24th, said he has suffered from sore hips and knees for about two months. Last season, ankle surgery to repair torn ligaments sidelined Rios for almost two months of play. He also had surgery on his pelvis to relieve pain in his groin.

        And Rios' year-round tennis calendar doesn't lend itself to many off days.

        “I would love to come and play and have no problems,” Rios, 26, said. “But it's hard, especially when you have to run around everywhere (during matches). I just have to play as well as I can.”

        He was able to do that Tuesday afternoon in his first-round match against Gaston Gaudio, winning 6-3, 6-2. Rios, who was ranked No.1 in March 1998, will play the 67th-ranked Dent today on the Grandstand Court.


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