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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.

Sampras was having pasta in his hotel when he heard that Marcelo Rios pulled out of the ATP Tour World Championship in Hanover, Germany, because of a back injury. That assured Sampras the top ranking for 1998.

"It's an ultimate achievement," he said. "It will probably never be broken. I'm trying to stay humble through all this, but the record speaks for itself. It's a little overwhelming."

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

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 guaranteed 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.

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.

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

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