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Sampras Finishes Season No. 1

Pete Sampras has a piece of tennis history, one more milestone to strengthen the case that he just might be the game's finest player ever.

On Thursday, he became the first player to hold the No. 1 ranking for a record sixth consecutive year, a mark he feels may never be broken.

"It feels great," Sampras said. "I put a lot of work into the game. It's tough to stay on top so long."

Sampras had been tied with Jimmy Connors, who was No. 1 for five straight years from 1974 to 1978.

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  • Marcelo Rios made a perfect Thanksgiving for Sampras when he pulled out of the ATP Tour World Championship because of a back injury.

    Rios, ranked no. 2, was the only man who could have threatened Sampras for the top ranking. Sampras entered the season-ending championship with a 33-point lead over the Chilean in the computer standings.

    If Sampras wins the tournament for the fifth time, he will pull even with Ivan Lendl on the career list. Sampras won the elite event in 1991, 1994 and the last two years.

    Having won his first two round-robin matches, Sampras was already assured a semifinal berth before he played Karol Kucera on Thursday.

    A relaxed Sampras then demonstrated why he is No. 1, crushing Kucera 6-2, 6-1 in 45 minutes. Kucera is No. 7 and beat Sampras once in their three previous matches this year.

    Sampras' declared goal is to break Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles. Sampras already has 11 and at 27 years old has a few years ahead of him on the tour.

    He leads all active players with 56 career titles, but Connors' record of 109 looks safe for a lng time.

    By his standards, Sampras has had a relatively modest year, winning four tournaments. That included his fifth Wimbledon, but no other Grand Slams.

    When the year-end rankings are released Monday, Sampras will be No. 1 for the 248th week, the third longest total behind Lendl (270) and Connors (268). Sampras could pass both of them next year.

    In the first match Thursday, Tim Henman beat Alex Corretja 7-6 (7-4), 6-7, (4-7), 6-2 to become the second player to advance to the semifinals.

    Corretja dropped to 1-1 but remains alive under the round-robin format. Henman is 2-0.

    Henman paid tribute to Sampras.

    "It's a phenomenal achievement," he said. "It's tough for anyone else really to comprehend. I don't think it's one that's going to be broken for a long, long time, if ever."

    Greg Rusedski, an alternate, played Albert Costa, the second alternate who is ranked No. 14 in the world, and won 7-6 (7-5), 6-1. The second Briton in the field needed 10 set points to win the first set, but breezed through the second.

    Rusedski replaced Andre Agassi, who dropped out late Wednesday, also because of a back injury.

    The $3.5 million tournament brings together players with the best results over the year. But with Patrick Rafter and Richard Krajicek both pulling out before the event because of injuries and Agassi and Rios withdrawing, four of the best players are missing.

    Rios had to do better than Sampras in the tournament to have a shot at dethroning him. But Sampras scored quick and impressive victories in his opening matches.

    Rios had already dented his hopes of overtaking Sampras by losing his first match, to Henman.

    "When I tried to practice this morning, it was really sore," Rios said. "It made no sense to go out on the court and play two games. I am disappointed but that's the way it goes."

    On Friday, Yevgeny Kafelnikov will play Carlos Moya for a place in the semifinals.

    Also, Rusedski faces Henman and Costa meets Corretja in matches determining the other two semifinalists. With Henman already through, Corretja and Rusedski are still in the running. Corretja will advance if Rusedski loses to Henman.

    © 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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