Patrick Rafter surprised Andre Agassi from the baseline. Three more matches like that in the Italian Open and the Australian will be No. 1.
Rafter pounded out 12 aces and 17 service winners in defeating Agassi 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) Thursday to reach the quarterfinals.
The No. 4 seed also engaged Agassi in classic exchanges from the baseline, wearing him down in one rally that lasted 31 strokes.
Rafter said he hasn't hit the ball so well since winning his second consecutive U.S. Open title last September.
"When I'm hitting the ball well, I know I'll have good results," he said.
In a season without any dominant player, the No. 1 ranking had been up for grabs among five players entered in the Italian Open, the last major test before the French Open.
But the current No. 1, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, continuing a slide begun soon after his Australian Open victory, put his ranking at risk with a loss Thursday to 16th-seeded Gustavo Kuerten.
Kafelnikov received a crystal trophy from the ATP Tour in recognition of last week's ascension to the top ranking in a center court ceremony before losing 7-5, 6-1.
Carlos Moya, the 1998 French Open champion who was in the running for No. 1, was upset by a little-known Argentine, Franco Squillari, 6-3, 7-5.
With the earlier elimination of Pete Sampras and Richard Krajicek, Rafter could take over the top spot if he wins the tournament.
"If I get to the final, then I'll start to get excited," said Rafter, playing down his chances on a surface that is not his favorite.
He next faces unseeded Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador.
Also reaching the quarterfinals were Spaniards Felix Mantilla and Alex Corretja, both tough on the slow, red clay at the Foro Italico.
No. 15 Mantilla advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Brazilian qualifier Fernando Meligeni, who ousted Sampras Wednesday.
Agassi, in his first tournament in a month because of a shoulder injury, attempted lobs, passing shots, and even tried to serve-and-volley against Rafter.
Agassi failed to adjust his game to counter the kind of pressure Rafter put on him.
"It's not encouraging, it's very discouraging," said Agassi, who called the match "a missed opportunity."
The 14th-seeded Agassi fought back from a 5-3 deficit in the second set, saving a match point in the 10th game, but could never get the upper hand.
"I got down early in the first set, early in the second set, and early in the tiebreaker," said Agassi, who had lost only 10 games in his first two matches. "The only thing I did well was compete."
Agassi managed only 11 points off Rafter's serve until momentarily turning the tide with his only break to pull even at 5-5 in the second set.
"He came an inch away from getting back into the match," said Rafter, who dominated the tiebreaker.
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