Big, brash Open may settle who's No. 1

In some ways, it seems a long time ago: It was August 1996, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was about 5,700, and Martina Hingis was just a wisp of a lass without a major win. It was also the last time two Americans were cast as the top two seeds at a Grand Slam tennis championship.

Now it's August 1999, and the US Open begins Monday with Americans Pete Sampras as the No.1 seed and Andre Agassi at No. 2. For this, American tennis could thank the resilience of Agassi, a former world No. 1 who had slipped to No. 122 and has now catapulted back to No. 2 in little more than a year.

As the battle for tennis supremacy plays out in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in the shadow of the Big Apple, more remarkable things could happen by the time vendors sell the 6,000 pounds of shrimp that they expect to. History beckons Sampras. In June, he tied Roy Emerson's record of 12 career Grand Slam singles titles by winning at Wimbledon. He's already won the US Open four times. A fifth title here and the math will assure his greatness among the greats.

A loss, and Sampras will be in danger of forfeiting his No. 1 ranking. Should Agassi win, he could usurp that position.

While a Sampras-Agassi clash is a New Yorker's dream come true, No. 3 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov and No. 4 Patrick Rafter are potential threats to the aspirations of Sampras and Agassi. Rafter is the defending champion.

Meanwhile, the competitiveness, glamour, and grit of women's tennis will continue to ensure its rising popularity. No. 1 seed Martina Hingis is back at her best. But the unexpected retirement of Steffi Graf is a bit of a blow.

This year has already produced six different Grand Slam singles champions: Kafelnikov and Hingis (Australian Open), Agassi and Graf (French Open), and Sampras and Lindsey Davenport (Wimbledon). By that yardstick, anything can happen at the US Open.

In one sense, the US Open is the grandest Grand Slam of all. It is the biggest in attendance and the richest with $14.5 million in prize money equally shared by both men and women, the only major to do so. It is also the loudest: a den of long, loud bellows.

The player and fans have a give-and-take relationship. New Yorkers love a champion, and they love Sampras. They cheer him in ways that Wimbledon fans might find unsettling: When Sampras threw up into a flower pot during a 1996 quarterfinal match, they lustily cheered. It "was pretty unique," as Sampras said later. "It definitely kept me going."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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