'Gladiators' ready for the Roman crown

ROME, MAY 8. Times may have changed since Romulus first built his city on the River Tiber and gladiators battled it out to the death in the Colosseum, but the good old-fashioned spirit of competition lives on at the Foro Italico in Rome this week.

As the ATP Champions Race 2000 reaches its fourth Tennis Masters Series stop of the year - the second on the clay courts of Europe - the game's biggest names and rising stars arrive in the Eternal City to join in a battle of their own for the Masters Series Shield.

Wielding only their racquets as opposed to swords and sporting the latest in tennis clothing rather than suits of armor, those challenging for the Roman Empire this year must be fully prepared for the task at hand.

And if the champions race was a chariot's race, there's no doubt that Andre Agassi would be leading the way approaching the half way stage. Having overtaken Lleyton Hewitt in first position following his win at the Australian Open, the 30-year-old from Las Vegas has spent 11 weeks at the front of the pack.

Agassi, who makes his first appearance on Europe's red clay since his emotional victory at Roland Garros last year, has been out of action since suffering from a thigh injury in Atlanta in April. He will be searching for his first title in Rome, having reached the final in 1989 (lost to Alberto Mancini).

Only Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov has managed to take over briefly at the front of the race since Agassi took charge, and despite a number of further opportunities in Estoril, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Mallorca, Kafelnikov is yet to take full advantage of Agassi's inactivity. He is 2-6 so far on the

clay this year.

Defending champion Gustavo `Guga' Kuerten has enjoyed more success on the clay this year, having already won his sixth career title in Santiago, Chile. The Brazilian, who reached the Masters Series final at the Ericsson Open in Miami, is attempting to become only the third player to achieve back-to-back titles at the Foro Italico in the Open era (since

1968). Only Jim Courier (1992-93) and Thomas Muster (1995-96) have completed the double, both of whom also went on to win the title at Roland Garros following their victories in Rome - Courier in 1992 and Muster in 1995.

Patrick Rafter, who entertained the crowds with his aggressive serve-volley game in one of the best finals in the history of the tournament against Kuerten last year, arrives in Rome having made a complete recovery from the shoulder injury that plagued most of his 1999 season. The Australian, who returned to action in Delray Beach in February, will be making his first competitive appearance outside North America since he lost to Andre Agassi at Wimbledon last year.

Among the serious contenders for the title in 2000 will be 1997 champion, Alex Corretja, the former Roland Garros finalist who captured the inaugural Masters Series crown on the hard courts at Indian Wells in March.

He will be joined in the 56-draw by his successor as champion, Marcelo Rios, the Chilean who is yet to find his best form so far this year, and Cedric Pioline, the Frenchman who enjoyed the biggest win of his career at the Masters Series-Monte Carlo event last month.

Carlos Moya (Estoril), Fernando Vicente (Casablanca) and Mariano Puerta (Bogota) also have won titles on clay this year and will be among those challenging for the title.

Two players currently enjoying a great run of results are Marat Safin, a winner in Barcelona and Mallorca, and the latest Spanish sensation, Juan Carlos Ferrero. Safin currently lies in 17th position in the champions race, while Ferrero is in 9th. Both will be looking to continue their rise this week.

Italian hopes rest with Renzo Furlan, Andrea Gaudenzi, Davide Sanguinetti and Laurence Tieleman, who have all been given wild cards.

The last Italian to win the championship at the Foro Italico was Adriano Panatta - the current tournament director - who defeated Guillermo Vilas in the 1976 final. He was also the last Italian to appear in the final (1978).