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The Fan Zone: Pete Sampras
"You have to respect and appreciate a guy who can both win and show some class for his sport and himself while doing it. here's to hoping Pete keeps winning his way in a sport with way too many want-to-be champions who can't keep their mouth shut."
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Sampras, Graf still have what it takes

Posted: Mon June 22, 1998

Jon Wertheim Tennis Mailbag Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions during Wimbledon. Click here to send a question.

As befits a tournament played a few miles from Buckingham Palace, all the talk heading into Wimbledon has been about the changing of the guard. Can Steffi Graf and/or Monica Seles recapture the No. 1 mantle from Martina Hingis? Can the Williams sisters supplant Hingis? Will Pete Sampras surrender his pole position for the second time this year?

But a far more significant transfer of power has already taken place in the sport. Women's tennis, having shed its image of two ponytailed teenagers playing interminably long points from the baseline, has suddenly overtaken the men's game. There's more competition among the women, the players are more colorful, and, last but not least, the matches are more exciting. Time was, we could sleep through the women's draw of the Grand Slams until the finals. Then we'd momentarily stir ourselves to see who would win the trophy: Chrissy, Martina or Steffi. This year, as television networks have vowed to truncate men's matches in order to air more women's tennis, as many as six females have a legitimate chance to win. Beyond seeing which players hoist a cup of Pimm's in two weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Messrs. Sampras, et al., can recapture some attention from the damsels.

What is wrong with Pete Sampras? The half-hearted effort he has put out several times this year would be called tanking if, say, Yevgeny Kafelnikov did the same thing. Why does Sampras suddenly lack motivation?
—Gary Smith, Gainesville, Fla.

I assume you're referring to his decisive loss to Mark Woodforde last week at the Queen's Club, which, I agree, was suspiciously one-sided. What's puzzling about Sampras' current lapse is that he claims he's O.K. physically; he's getting plenty of rest between matches; and overtaking Roy Emerson's record of 12 lifetime Grand Slam singles titles—his long-stated career goal—is certainly within sniffing distance (Sampras has 10). It would be easy to blame girlfriend Kimberly Williams for diverting his attention, but I don't think that's it either.

At the same the time—warning: horrible sports cliché coming—Sampras truly has "the heart of a champion." This is not a player who takes losing lightly and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him tear through the Wimbledon field, as he did last year, causing us to forget about his sluggish preparation matches.

  GRAF Health is the key to Steffi Graf's quest for her eighth one of these.    (David Walberg)
Will Steffi Graf's loss to Anna Kournikova in the Eastbourne warmup be a blessing in disguise? Her body appeared to be doing fine, and she spent enough time on court to feel comfortable on grass again. Do you think the extra days off will have allowed Steffi to fine-tune herself and take Wimbledon?
—Mat, Melbourne, Australia

No. At this point, Graf needs match experience to regain her form and timing, and, more important, test the limits of her body. Heading into what may be her final fortnight at Wimbledon, she needed to be out on the court, playing sets and competing. The reports on her health have been all over the map, to mix metaphors. But if she stays injury-free, it's hardly unlikely that she can win for the eighth time here.

I happen to be a Jan Siemerink fan and consider him a dangerous draw. Who do you see as the other dangerous non-seeded players?
—Brian Boyle, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

I like Siemerink, too, particularly on grass, but he seems unable to string a series of good matches together. He'll beat a seed one day and then lose to a nobody the next. He has a tough first-round opponent in Slava Dosedel, but is more than capable of upending Jonas Bjorkman in the third. As far as other unseeded sleepers, keep an eye on Australian upset specialist Scott Draper; the perennially dangerous Mark Woodforde; Magnus Larsson; and Sjeng Schalken, whose matchup against surging American Jan-Michael Gambill ought to be among the best first-round pairings. Unfortunately, Lisa Raymond, one of the few unseeded women who could make some noise, drew Martina Hingis in the first round.

How good of a player do you think Martina Hingis is? Is she as good as some of the past No. 1s? Can you see anybody else besides Hingis dominating women's tennis in the next few years?
—Dean Leite, Sydney, Australia

Hingis is plenty good, but so is her timing. Her ascent coincided with Steffi Graf's and Monica Seles' absence, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Jana Novotna's aging, and a dearth of other good players ages 18-25. Hingis' style of play belies her age, she's mentally unflappable, and her power is deceptive. That said, I think when they were at their peak, Graf and Seles would both have beaten her handily. If and when the Williams sisters, Mirjana Lucic, and, to a lesser extent, Anna Kournikova, learn to be patient, work points and harness their physical gifts, Hingis' reign will end.

How long do you think it will be before Anna Kournikova is able to pull off a win? She's on the verge of the top 10 without a single WTA title.
—Junebug, Detroit

Though only 17, Kournikova, the haughtiest of the teen sensations, has won as many pro tournaments as Monica Lewinsky. As Martina Navratilova said of Kournikova just last week, "I don't have a problem with her marketing; what I have a problem with is being cocky and arrogant when you've not won a thing. Sex appeal does not win matches." (If it did, of course, Martina would have been consigned to the satellite circuit.)

What's up with Jennifer Capriati? Is it possible for her to regain any sort of form and compete at the high level that she used to? In her on-again, off-again comeback, she has been ranked as high as the mid-20s. Can she get back to that level of tennis?
—Brian, New Hampshire

Capriati remains one of the saddest stories in tennis. In 1990, at age 15, she defeated Helen Kelesi to become the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon. Four years later she was off the tour and in drug rehab, a walking, talking cautionary tale for precocious athletes. Capriati is now 22—startling, I know—and keeping a low profile while, in fits and starts, she tries to resurrect a gloriously disappointing career. Trading solely on name recognition, she can get wild-card entries to any event she chooses (this year's Wimbledon included—her first-round opponent Tuesday is Australia's Nicole Pratt) and thus retain a respectable ranking. But strong results have been hard to come by. Entering this year, she hadn't won a round of a Grand Slam event since 1993, and it's painful to watch her lose uninspired matches to players she would have clobbered in her prime. One wishes she would chuck the rackets and get on with her life.

Are there any good players from my home country who have a chance of winning Wimbledon this year?
—Alexsanteri Seppala, Dulu, Finland

The Finnish are usually finished after the first round. Your best bet—your only bet, for that matter—is vowel-endowed Tuomas Ketola, a qualifier who plays South Africa's David Nainkin in his first match. Should he win, he'll likely face Tim Henman in the second round. On the bright side, you ought to have plenty of time on your hands to watch the World Cup.

Send a question to Jon Wertheim, and check back Monday to read more of his answers.  

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