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Sarasota clay event a big draw

The Sarasota Clay Court Classic has neither the tradition nor the purse to compare to many WTA Tour tournaments, but it will have the players.

Credit the clay.

The event, at the Meadows Country Club, is the season's first on clay, making it an appealing stop for players wanting to prepare for tournaments like the Family Circle Cup, Bausch & Lomb Championships and, of course, the French Open.

The Tier 4 event (the WTA rates tournaments from 1-5 with one being the most prominent) has a $140,000 purse, one of the smallest on tour. But thus far, nine top 25 players have committed to the March 31-April 6 event, a number that rivals more prestigious stops.

"We're the envy of other events," tournament director Lesley Eckert said. "A lot of it has to do with timing. And it's also a place where many players live and train. It's a good fit for them to play in this event. We believe we have the strongest Tier 4 event and rival some Tier 3 events."

The surface quality has drawn rave reviews.

One of last year's participants, Nicole Arendt, had most of the players in the draw sign a letter to the club saying the courts were some of the best they played on, and that the tournament was a great warmup for larger events.

Sixteen of last year's 32 players will return.

No. 9 Jelena Dokic, the defending champion, is the field's highest-ranked player. Other headliners are No. 13 Patty Schnyder, No. 16 Anna Pistolesi, No. 17 Elena Bovina, No. 18 Ai Sugiyama, No. 20 Elena Dementieva, No. 22 Nathalie Dechy, No. 23 Lisa Raymond, No. 24 Meghann Shaughnessy, and former major champions Conchita Martinez, Iva Majoli and Mary Pierce.

Four of those entered have won events this season, including Sugiyama, who defeated No. 3 Kim Clijsters at the State Farm Classic.

Call (941) 894-0040 for tickets.

WAITING FOR PETE: The pullouts continue for 2002 U.S. Open champ Pete Sampras. The 14-time major champion withdrew from the Pacific Life Open and Nasdaq-100 Open last week, telling one organizer he wasn't at a top level and feared going through a drought much like the one he endured before winning in New York in September.

Sampras, 31, has withdrawn from four straight events amid growing speculation he will retire. He is scheduled to make his long-anticipated return in April. His brother, Gus, told Reuters that Sampras has not decided whether to play or retire. He added that Sampras could skip more events and play only in the Grand Slams.

A PAL FROM DOWN UNDER: Men's No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt has a fan in rising PGA Tour standout Aaron Baddeley. The fellow Australian, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., watched Hewitt's first-round match at last week's Franklin Templeton Classic in Scottsdale, dined with Hewitt that evening, then played golf with him the next day.

Hewitt won the singles title.

RISING STAR: Switzerland's Roger Federer is living up to his preseason hype. The 21-year-old went 15-1 with two titles in February to earn ATP player of the month honors. He began the year ranked sixth, but now is No. 4 behind Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Juan Carlos Ferrero.

ODDS AND ENDS: The Sarasota Clay Court Classic has openings for ball kids. Applications can be found online at www.sarasotaclaycourtclassic.com. Tampa's James Blake teamed with former Florida standout Mark Merklein to win the doubles title at the Franklin Templeton Classic. Merklein, a NCAA singles champion for the Gators, lives in South Florida but often trains with Blake at Saddlebrook. German Nicolas Kiefer, in between play at last week's International Tennis Championships in Delray Beach, was taught how to tame alligators in Boynton Beach. A photo of him kissing one of the reptiles can be found at www.atptour.com.

_ Information from Times wires was used in the report.

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