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Pointed debate over new way to rank players

In less than two weeks, when second-ranked Martina Hingis makes tennis history by becoming, at 16, the youngest player atop the women's tour, she will have more than diligent parents, skilled coaches and a ferocious backhand to thank.

This season, the WTA TOUR has instituted a new ranking system, one that will enable Hingis, who began the year ranked fourth, to overtake Steffi Graf at the Lipton Championships, which begin Thursday in Key Biscayne.

It's a sobering reality of the new system, which is drawing the attention of agents, players and parents who don't like it.

Although WTA TOUR officials say the system is achieving its intended goal of encouraging the top players to compete more often, some people around the game fear its effects on a tour that has had more than its share of injured stars (Graf, Monica Seles, Chanda Rubin) and burned-out prodigies (Jennifer Capriati).

"The players aren't real happy with the new system," retired pro Wendy Turnbull said. "The worst thing you would want to do is make players play more than they want to."

Although the system has only been in place for a little more than two months, it is subtly turning the tour into a place where everyone, according to one player, is trying even more to keep up with everyone else instead of focusing on their own schedule.

The system rewards those who play more and hurts those who don't.

Unlike the old system, under which ranking was based on a player's point total divided by at least 14 tournaments, ranking in the new system is based solely on points.

Thus, the more tournaments played, the more points possibly accumulated.

"Personally, I like it, so far, because it just allows you to play as many tournaments as you want," said Tampa pro Kristina Brandi, ranked 98th and a Lipton entrant.

Brandi, 19, is one player who is trying to take full advantage of the new system. She said her 1997 schedule is "packed with tons of tournaments," nearly double what it was last year.

Others apparently are following suit, although perhaps not to the same degree.

According to tour officials, most of the top 26 players are playing 15 percent more tournaments than last year. It's no coincidence, WTA TOUR communications director Joe Favorito said, that attendance records have been set at 10 of the tour's first 11 events this year.

But is more better?

It's better for the tour, which should see more competitive tournament fields and thus begin to satisfy a public hungry to see more of the game's marquee names.

But some people say that may all come at a price.

Playing more tournaments could lead to more injuries _ for the many teenage pros whose bodies are developing, as well as for the elite pros who play a lot of matches because they win a lot.

"Injuries are a factor that no one can control," Favorito said. "That's the same with any sport."

Players out with injury or who take a break will be more adversely affected by the new system.

Graf is a good example.

She is nursing an injured left knee from early February that is expected to keep her off the tour until late April. She's missing weighty events such as the Lipton, which awards the most points of any non-Grand Slam or tour championship event _ points that tour officials admit ultimately are costing her the No.

1 ranking.

Graf, who has played in 12 events over the past 52 weeks, has 4,669 points, but because she can't play this week, she'll lose the 420 she got for winning the event last year once this year's tournament is over.

Hingis, who has played in 17 events over the past 52 weeks, has 4,277 points, and at least can match the one point she got for losing in Lipton's second round a year ago.

Under the old system, tour officials confirmed, an injured Graf would have retained her No.

1 ranking regardless of how well Hingis does at Lipton.

"You don't want to penalize a player like that," Turnbull said.

Others, such as Bernadette Rubin, mother of 25th-ranked Chanda Rubin, fear the new system may pressure pros to play if they're injured or fatigued.

"There is a possibility of other players saying, "Well, I'm going to go out and see if I can try (to play) because if I don't, my ranking is going to really drop,'

" Rubin said.

"They force themselves out there when they're not ready."

Said Brandi: "I think that can happen. People will be playing with injuries because they know they have to keep up with everybody else."

Brandi acknowledged the system has its pitfalls but predicted everything will work out.

"Maybe the first year everybody will be going out and playing as many tournaments as they can," she said, "and then as the years go by, everything will die down, and everybody will find a pace for themselves."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.

The top 20

ATP TOUR: 1. Pete Sampras, 2. Thomas Muster, 3. Michael Chang, 4. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 5. Goran Ivanisevic, 6. Richard Krajicek, 7. Thomas Enqvist, 8. Carlos Moya, 9. Marcelo Rios, 10. Wayne Ferreira, 11. Boris Becker, 12. Albert Costa, 13. Andre Agassi, 14. Todd Martin, 15. Felix Mantilla, 16. Tim Henman, 17. Stefan Edberg, 18. Marc Rosset, 19. Alberto Berasategui, 20. Magnus Gustafsson

WTA TOUR 1. Steffi Graf, 2. Martina Hingis, 3. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 4. Jana Novotna, 5. Monica Seles, 6. Conchita Martinez, 7. Lindsay Davenport, 8. Anke Huber, 9. Irina Spirlea, 10. Iva Majoli, 11. Karina Habsudova, 12. Mary Joe Fernandez, 13. Mary Pierce, 14. Barbara Paulus, 15. Amanda Coetzer, 16. Judith Wiesner, 17. Kimberly Po, 18. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, 19. Elena Likhovtseva, 20. Nathalie Tauziat