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Pozzi still has plenty of bounce

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Latest: Tuesday August 29, 2000 10:53 PM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- While young players like Justin Gimelstob quibble about being omitted from the ATP Tour's uncharacteristically controversial NEW BALLS PLEASE marketing campaign, Italian Gianluca Pozzi knows damn well that he doesn't qualify for membership. Pozzi, you see, not only turned 35 this summer, but on the court he is as unhip as they come.

As men's tennis slouches toward becoming an artless serving contest, Pozzi has clung to old-school virtues. Clad in all whites, with an outmoded Dunlop racket and an extreme lefty grip, Pozzi is a modern-day Ginsu knife -- slicing, dicing, scraping and scrapping until the last point. He won't outgun his opponent with heavy artillery but will instead stab him 1,000 times with agonizing angles and unlikely shotmaking.

But wait! There's more! In his 19th year with a pro ranking, he is achieving his best results. Having cracked the top 50 for the first time in his elongated career, he enters Wednesday's first-round dust-up against Christian Ruud of Norway in 46th place in the Champions Race.

Pozzi has already recorded wins this year against Marat Safin, Jiri Novak (thrice) and Jonas Bjorkman. For good measure, win or lose Wednesday, he will cross the $200,000 mark for prize money this year. "Oh, Pozzi," Safin says, withholding a laugh. "He is such a frustrating guy to play against, always chopping and chopping, never letting you get a rhythm."

Pozzi has no good answer for why he has found success at such an advanced age. He trains hard, he plays inveterately -- Wednesday will mark his 58th match of the year, not including Davis Cup -- and leads the type of simplified, Calvinist life befitting someone who resides in Bari, Italy. That his wife, Cristina accompanies him to many events helps his longevity immensely. "I don't think about my age that much," he says with a shrug. "I still enjoy the game and try to do the right things to play as long as possible."

Still, the reminders of time passed bombard him at every turn. Friends on tour informed him that, upon turning 35, he was eligible for the seniors tour. A few weeks ago in the first round of Cincinnati, he faced young American Andy Roddick, who was born in 1982, the same year Pozzi broke onto the circuit. He scans the locker room and spies coaches who are younger than he is. " Alexander Volkov is now working with Marat Safin," Pozzi says, running a hand through his not insignificant forehead. "I remember when Volkov first came on tour."

Pozzi points out, though, that he's not alone among the fossils. Haitian sensation Ronald Agenor, who didn't make the main draw here but who's been in the top 100 for much of the year, turns 36 in November. Mark Woodforde, still as good a doubles player as there is, turns 35 next month. Rick Leach, winner of this year's Australian Open doubles title, is a robust 35. Of course, the top seed in the men's singles draw, fellow named Agassi, is on the north side of 30. No, the codgers may not be particularly marketable for a tour trying desperately to appeal to the Fred Durst crowd. But rest assured, for Pozzi and his legion of graying, balding contemporaries, the Old Balls still have plenty of bounce, too.

Half volleys

Fabiola Zuluaga pulled out Tuesday with an injury. She was replaced by the most fortuitous of lucky losers, Alicia Molik. ... A first-round loser here makes an even $10,000. ... The elegant Argentine, Agustin Calleri, is the goods. You heard it here first. ... After Goran Ivanisevic lost to Dominik Hrbaty 3-6, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0, he was in a reflexive mood. Among his insights: "Instead of smashing every racket, everything, I didn't even say a word. It's like a faggot." He also noted that if he retired, "Maybe I go crazy after three months, you know, start shooting somebody in Croatia." Right. We know there's a trainer on sight. Is there a psychiatrist, too? ... Today's celeb prognosticator is Melissa Etheridge: " Gustavo Kuerten -- he's a joy to watch and will be a real threat in New York." Whoops.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports from the Open.

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