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Since 1st March, 1999
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All eyes on Agassi, Roddick
- Two-horse race expected in women’s half following absence of Williams sisters

New York: Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick are stealing the US Open spotlight in the absence of the most beloved stars, Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters.

The year’s final Grand Slam event opens on Monday on the Flushing Meadows hardcourts with a drama-filled men’s line-up and a diminished women’s field lacking top stars.

Sampras, who will retire amid ceremonies on Monday, had reached the past three US Open finals. He defeated Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in last year’s title match for his 14th Grand Slam title in what was the final match of his career.

Six-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams beat her sister Venus here in last year’s final, but both siblings are sidelined by injuries. For the first time since 1971, no singles champion will attempt to defend at the US Open.

“It’s a blow for the tournament,” Agassi said. “You always want the best players there.”

The Williams sisters have met in six of the past eight Grand Slam finals and owned the US Open since 1998. Not having Serena slinking around the court in her “pink panther” or “black cat” outfits will steal some zing from the fortnight.

World No. 1 Kim Clijsters of Belgium and her second-seeded compatriot Justine Henin-Hardenne are heavy favourites to reach the final with the Williams sisters gone and their main rivals injured.

Third seed Lindsay Davenport pulled out of the New Haven WTA final on Sunday with a left foot injury. That gave Jennifer Capriati her first title since the 2002 Australian Open, but the sixth seed has a sore shoulder. And fifth seed Amelie Mauresmo of France has a nagging back pain.

That leaves centrestage to the men. Agassi seeks a ninth Grand Slam crown while Roddick wants his first. French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain and Swiss Wimbledon champion Roger Federer want to prove one title was not a fluke.

Asian No. 1 Paradorn Srichaphan, seeded 11th, seeks a breakthrough while Australian star Lleyton Hewitt, who has sunk to sixth in the seedings, wants to revive his once-mighty form.

Agassi, at 33, is the oldest man here and ever atop the ATP rankings. He also has the speed, stamina and return skills to capture a third US Open crown.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are. It matters what you bring to the game,” said Roddick, who has overtaken Agassi and Federer to lead the season-long ATP Champions Race.

Roddick, one week shy of his 21st birthday, has been the ATP’s hottest player over the past five weeks, winning 20 of 21 matches and titles at Indianapolis, Montreal and Cincinnati to bolster his confidence.

“I probably didn’t go into the last two Opens to win the tournament. I probably went in to make a good run,” Roddick said.

“I definitely want to try to take this title. I know that’s big talk but I’ve played pretty well. I feel like I kind of deserve my place as one of the top players, and hopefully it will translate into some good tennis. I definitely want to try to step up to the occasion and play well.”

Roddick is 30-2 since naming ex-Agassi coach Brad Gilbert as new coach. But one of those losses came in a Washington semi-final to Britain’s Tim Henman, who again stands in Roddick’s path here in the opening round.

“He’s a very good player. That’s where my focus is,” Roddick said. “He did a great job. He just played a solid match. He hit his forehand very well. That was one thing that really surprised me. He was dominating with his forehand.”

Agassi also faces a formidable foe at the start, Alex Corretja. Agassi is 4-3 against the Spaniard, but has lost their past three meetings, including the 1998 Indianapolis and 2000 Washington finals.

Seven different players have won men’s titles at the past seven Grand Slams, with Roddick and fifth seed Guillermo Coria of Argentina the leading candidates to extend that streak here. Coria could meet Agassi in the quarter finals. No such mystery extends to the women’s side, where Clijsters could have a chance to avenge Henin-Hardenne’s 6-0, 6-4 triumph in their French Open final clash. Each has won six WTA titles this year.

Henin-Hardenne, 21, has won two US Open tune-up events since a Wimbledon semi-final loss to Serena Williams.

But no matter which woman captures the crown, it will be tainted in the absence of top-ranked Serena Williams. “If she’s in, she’s going to win,” Agassi said. “If not, somebody else can.”

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