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The potential villain isn't wearing the black hat; he's wearing the black ponytail.

Chilean Marcelo Rios, on the verge of sweeping in and taking Pete Sampras' No. 1 ranking, must get by a new-and-improved Andre Agassi today (2 p.m., Ch. 4) in the final of the Lipton Championships to accomplish the job.

An entire country is waiting and watching as the nationally televised match is expected to draw stunning ratings in Chile. Rios became a national sports icon when he reached the final of Australian Open in January.

Though he lost to Petr Korda, Rios shook off his disappointment and has showed a fierce determination since then, winning at Indian Wells and losing just one set in five matches.

"Reaching the final of a Grand Slam, you can find out you're playing well and you can beat anybody," Rios said. "When I played Korda last week (at Indian Wells), and beating him, I said, 'Why didn't I play like that in the (Australian) final?' "

Agassi lost in three Grand Slam finals before winning Wimbledon in 1992. He did, however, win three Grand Slam events before becoming No. 1 in April 1995.

Rios would be the second player to reach No. 1 before winning a Grand Slam title. The other was Ivan Lendl in February 1983. Additionally, the No. 3-ranked Rios would be the first player to reach No. 1 without first reaching No. 2 since the ATP rankings started in 1973.

A victory would move Agassi from No. 31 to No. 17, but he is taking more of a long-term approach. And he assumes Sampras will do so as well.

"To be quite honest, I don't think Pete is too concerned about it," Agassi said. "It's a long year. I'm thinking at the end of the year, that's when it will be most important."

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