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LOSS OF BIG NAMES PUSHES MEN DEEPER INTO GENDER GAP

Someone send some smelling salts to the guys at the ATP Tour.

Second fiddle to the sass and sex appeal of the women before the tournament even started, the men are reeling only two days into the U.S. Open.

In one day, the men's draw lost top seed Pete Sampras, two-time defending champion and fourth seed Patrick Rafter, sixth seed Tim Henman and American favorite Jim Courier.

That leaves Andre Agassi and . . . Yevgeny Kafelnikov?

Not exactly what the doctor ordered to rev up a men's game that is lacking personality.

"It's tough for the tournament, especially with Pete playing such great tennis, and my form was pretty good coming in here," Rafter said.

It was a day that started with the bad news that Sampras was withdrawing due to a herniated disk, the announcement coming before the morning sessions even began, and ended on the equally bad note of Rafter's retirement in the fifth set of a previously thrilling match against Cedric Pioline because of a bad shoulder, that death knell sounding well after 11 p.m. In between, Henman and Courier were both early-round upset victims.

"Pioline is still here. It's good," Pioline joked when asked about the rash of top players already finished.

In a day of firsts, it was not the kind anyone wanted. Sampras was the first No. 1 seed to withdraw from the U.S. Open in the Open era (starting in 1968) and Rafter was the first defending champion to lose in the first round in the 119-year history of the tournament formally known as the U.S. Nationals.

The biggest loss, of course, was Sampras. The No. 1-ranked player was to be going for a chance to become the first man to win 13 Grand Slam titles, having tied Roy Emerson's mark of 12 with his sixth Wimbledon title in July. Instead, he is heading home to California to rehab for at least a month, likely two.

He said he suffered the injury on Sunday while returning a serve in a practice against Gustavo Kuerten. He felt his back "go" and immediately stopped, cutting short his anticipated hour session to 25 minutes. Sampras assumed it was merely back spasms, but when the pain persisted on Monday. Dr. Brian Hainline, the U.S. Open medical director, suggested an MRI, which revealed the herniation in the lower back.

"I have many U.S. Opens and other Grand Slam opportunities ahead of me," Sampras said. "As competitive as I am, I was hoping to do it here, but it's not like I'm 32 or 33 (he's 28). I have a lot of good years left in me, provided I stay healthy."

Rafter feels the same way. He started out his match against Pioline on fire, easily taking the first sets, 6-4, 6-4. But he started to have trouble in the third, the velocity on his serve noticeably dipping. He needed constant attention from the trainer, at one point seeking treatment on three consecutive changeovers. He lost the third set, 6-3, and the next, 7-5, and was broken in the first game of the fifth.

Instead of heading for his chair during the changeover, he approached the net, had a few words with Pioline, talked to the chair umpire and slumped in his chair. Minutes later, while the crowd that remained whistled, disappointed to have the thrilling match over, he walked off with a towel over his head.

"For me, it's very tough to pull yourself off that court," Rafter said. "I sat there at 7-5 and knew I should have walked off at that stage and I didn't. Even if I had won the game, I couldn't see myself pulling up for the next match."

Rafter has been troubled by the shoulder since his last tournament in Indianapolis, where he withdrew in the quarterfinals. But he said he felt great practicing, was regaining his confidence and thought the shoulder would hold up.

The hope of the men's draw now lies squarely on the newly sculpted shoulders of Agassi. Most fans were hoping that he would meet Sampras in the final. Instead, the only meeting the two had was on the phone Tuesday.

"It's tough for so many people -- the fans, myself and ultimately for Pete," Agassi said. "I spoke with him this morning and he's not doing good . . . (I told him that I was) sorry for him, sorry for tennis. It would have been an awesome time. It's sad. Tennis will go on and so will the U.S. Open and we will try to make it as good as it can be."

The women had no similar upsets as defending champion and No. 2 Lindsay Davenport led a parade of seeded women players into the second round. Also winning first-round matches Tuesday were No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 5 Mary Pierce, No. 7 Serena Williams, No. 9 Julie Halard-Decugis, No. 11 Nathalie Tauziat, No. 14 Sandrine Testud and No. 16 Conchita Martinez.

Gone are Alexandra Stevenson, the surprising qualifier who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, and the entire Black family of Zimbabwe: brothers Byron and Wayne along with sister Cara.

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