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lizchris
Aug 25th, 2003, 03:28 AM
Tennis-Open-Home hopes thin on the ground in New York

By Ossian Shine

NEW YORK, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Despite dominating recent tennis history, American title hopes look decidedly thin on the ground on the eve of the 2003 U.S. Open.

Aided largely by the phenomenal Pete Sampras on the men's side and a host of Americans on the women's tour, the players from Stateside have sucked up 34 grand slam singles titles in the last decade alone -- 11 at Flushing Meadows.

But with reigning men's champion Sampras officially retiring on Monday and women's champion Serena Williams along with her elder sister and twice champion Venus sidelined by injury, home hopes rest on relatively few shoulders this time round.

Fortunately for the U.S., one set of those shoulders belongs to the evergreen Andre Agassi, at 33 stronger than ever and seeded one at the tournament he has won twice before.

Last year, it took an inspired Sampras to beat him in the title match and this year Agassi is back and gunning for a ninth grand slam.

Having triumphed in Australia for a fourth time earlier this season -- a record for a man born outside Australia -- Agassi proved he still has what it takes on the biggest stages in the sport.

He should face little trouble as he opens his campaign next week against new father Alex Corretja in the first round.

Spaniard Corretja has been ranked as high as number two in the world but he has looked as though his mind is on other things since the birth of his first child, a daughter, in June.

STYLISH SWISS

Lurking at the bottom of the draw is the main European threat, stylish Swiss Roger Federer.

The man billed as the new Pete Sampras will still be flushed by his success at Wimbledon last month -- his first grand slam crown -- and eager to back it up in the United States.

Certainly he oozes ability and could well emerge champion at the end of the fortnight.

Federer also faces a claycourter, Argentine Jose Acasuso, in what should also be a relatively straightforward opening against a baseliner.

America's other great hope, fourth seed Andy Roddick, faces an unenviable task, however.

Despite winning back-to-back Masters crowns entering the Open, he will not relish his first-round clash against Britain's Tim Henman -- a player most seeds had been hoping to avoid.

A period of injury has seen Henman's ranking slide to the mid-30s leaving him without a seeded spot in the draw, but just last month he showed his mettle by storming to the title in Washington, defeating Roddick in the semi-finals.

European heavyweights top and tail the women's draw as the Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne lead the entries.

SEEDED ONE

Clijsters is seeded one, but she has never won a grand slam crown. She will be hoping that, like boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt who triumphed here in 2001, she can break her duck in New York.

Henin-Hardenne became the first Belgian slam winner earlier this year in Paris when she beat Clijsters in the French Open final.

She has the perfect all-court game to succeed at Flushing Meadows.

Lindsay Davenport leads America's hopes in the women's field, but she is without a grand slam crown since January 2000 when she won in Melbourne and was forced to retire from the Pilot Pen final on Saturday with a left foot injury.

For most of this season, the former world number one has been troubled by an inflamed nerve between two toes and she now plans to undergo surgery after the U.S. Open.

Jennifer Capriati could be a better bet for U.S. fans, and gave herself a timely confidence-booster for Flushing Meadows by winning the Pilot Pen title on Saturday, her first success since last year's Australian Open.

"I feel confident going in there now, but it's a tough two weeks and I just have to take it match by match, not look ahead," said Capriati.



08/24/03 19:20 ET

Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited.