Thursday, July 17, 2003

Strong showing for U.S. players

Agassi atop field of 8 at Tennis Masters Cincinnati

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Chang will be honored Aug. 11.
The announcement of early commitments for the Western & Southern Financial Masters reflects tennis' diversity, as those 51 entrants hail from 24 different countries. Yet a strong season by Americans should make for a deep pool of U.S. entrants.

There were eight Americans among the world's top 51 - who automatically qualify - inthe June 23 rankings, the cutoff for entrants to the Cincinnati event.

That's one more player than Argentina and two more than Spain, the next-highest totals, though American Pete Sampras (No. 28 in those rankings) won't be playing here.

Still, the total of eight Americans in the top 51 is two more than in any year since this event became mandatory in 2000. There were seven Americans in the early commitment list here in 1998, eight in '97 and 10 in '96, but then many foreign players skipped the event and it was easier for a lower-ranked American to get in.

Players such as James Blake, Jan-Michael Gambill, Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish, who formerly needed wild cards to get into this field, are now doing so on their rankings.

"It's great for American tennis," tournament director Bruce Flory said. "These guys that did need help coming along have taken advantage of it."

Andre Agassi, 33, will be back, toting the world's No. 1 ranking. The next U.S. player is No.  6 Andy Roddick, who's the only man to reach the semifinals of two Grand Slam events this year.

Blake is ranked No.  29 this week, having a so-so season. Vince Spadea, who turns 29 Friday, is resurgent at No. 34, having won more matches thus far this year (20) than in the past three years combined. Gambill, No. 39, has won three career tournaments. Fish, the only player to take a set off of Roger Federer at Wimbledon, is up to a career-high No.  40 ranking.

Dent has dropped from No.  37 in the June 23 rankings to No.  53, but he's in. Robby Ginepri won his first career ATP title last weekend in Newport, R.I., and ranks a career-high No. 46 this week, though his No. 54 ranking June 23 means he's not in the field yet.

When injured players drop out, spots will be filled by players in order of their June 23 rankings; Ginepri should make it that way. The field will be filled out with four wild cards, eight players from the Aug. 9-10 qualifier and one "special exempt" spot left open for any semifinalists from Tennis Masters Canada (who couldn't play in the qualifier) or the next player in line on the rankings list.

The first wild card has been granted to Michael Chang. Chang, 31, will be making his 16th and final appearance in Cincinnati, having announced he'll retire after the U.S. Open. A two-time winner of this event, he has 41 match victories here, ranking second only to Stefan Edberg's 45.

Flory said the tournament plans to honor Chang at the Aug. 11 evening session, whether Chang plays that day or not.

Top candidates for the other three wild cards? Americans Brian Vahaly (ranked 76th this week) and Todd Martin (94th), plus 2000 Cincinnati champion Thomas Enqvist (No. 112). Other American possibles include Justin Gimelstob and 20-year-old Alex Bogomolov Jr. There probably will be 11 or 12 Americans in the field, not counting qualifiers.

Jonas Bjorkman, who reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and currently ranks No. 44, probably will have to qualify here.

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