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Anything can happen
Unusual air of excitement surrounding Wimbledon
Posted: Friday June 18, 1999 05:08 PM
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) -- Weather aside, the outlook this year at Wimbledon is unusually bright.
Sure, there's always the threat of rain. And Wimbledon remains susceptible to criticism that lawn tennis is duller than watching grass courts grow, especially on the men's side.
But this year, the tournament coincides with a sudden upswing in the sport's popularity, the result of two dramatic, emotional finals at the French Open earlier this month.
Wimbledon opens Monday with the focus on five-time champion Pete Sampras, who seeks a record-tying 12th Grand Slam title. And thanks to Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who staged career comebacks in Paris, there will be plenty of subplots:
Can a rejuvenated Agassi become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year?
Now that Graf has her first Grand Slam title since 1996, can she win Wimbledon for the eighth time?
Or will youth be served? Will Venus Williams bounce back from disappointment in Paris to claim her first Grand Slam title? Serena, who was forced to withdraw from Wimbledon because of the flu, will have to wait until the U.S. Open to try to make another Grand Slam run.
How will Martina Hingis perform following a French Open that ended in a jeers and tears? Will she continue to serve underhand? Will British fans jeer her if she does?
Can Boris Becker draw inspiration from Agassi's showing in Paris and stage a charge in his last Wimbledon?
And finally, what in the world is John McEnroe doing out there with a racket?
To answer the last question first: The 40-year-old McEnroe, who often leads complaints that grass-court tennis has become boring, plans to interject his own excitement by playing mixed doubles with Graf.
That's a sideshow, and the Sampras story line will dominate Centre Court. He won Wimbledon in 1998 for the fifth time in six years but hasn't reached a Grand Slam final since, and he still needs one major title to match Australian great Roy Emerson's record of 12.
Sampras' slump this spring, capped by a second-round exit at Paris, prompted speculation that he's in decline at age 27. But Sampras also struggled early in 1998 before winning Wimbledon, and a return to grass rejuvenated his game again last week, when he beat Britain's Tim Henman in the final at Queen's.
"I'm trying to mentally put the first four or five months behind me," Sampras said. "It's been an up-and-down year, and I haven't played very many matches. I haven't felt like I've been in a great rhythm.
"I'm pretty much in the same boat I was last year at this time. Wimbledon turned my year around, and I hope that's the case this year."
Agassi's resurgence creates the tantalizing prospect of a showdown with Sampras in the final. Their rivalry was once the most touted in tennis, but they haven't met in a Grand Slam tournament since the 1995 U.S. Open final, which Sampras won.
Agassi's first major title came at Wimbledon in 1992, and two weeks ago he became only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slams. Now he'll try to become the first man to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Borg did it three times in a row in 1978-1980.
"That would be something," Agassi said. "I certainly know I have a lot more tennis in me."
That's if he's healthy. Two days after winning the French, Agassi withdrew from a tournament in Halle, Germany, complaining of a sore thigh, but said he expected to be ready for Wimbledon.
Also planning to play is Becker, 31, who announced his retirement from Grand Slam competition two years ago but decided to take one final bow at Wimbledon this year. He won the tournament three times, most recently in 1989.
"Two or three years ago I considered myself one of the few who had a chance at Wimbledon," the red-haired German said. "I know I can play well on grass. I'm going to give a difficult match to anybody who is going to play me on it."
On the women's side the sentimental favorite is Graf, who will try to build on her stunning showing at Paris. The Grand Slam title was Graf's 22nd, capping her comeback from a series of injuries that threatened her career.
"She surprised everybody and herself with the way she played," defending Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna of the Czech Republic said. "She played some of her best tennis in years. Her chances of playing well at Wimbledon and possibly winning it are great."
Don't count out Novotna, either. She sprained her right ankle playing doubles at the French but expects to be ready for Wimbledon.
Novotna and Graf are among at least seven women capable of winning the title, with the others including Americans Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and those brash teenagers -- Hingis, Venus Williams and Russia's Anna Kournikova.
The top-ranked Hingis won Wimbledon in 1997. But she must regroup after unraveling in the French final, when she drew jeers for complaining about calls and resorting to underhanded serves at the end of the match.
As for the other teen queens, they've fallen shy of expectations in major tournaments so far.
"I'm not really sure if they're ready to do it over here at Wimbledon," Novotna said. "I think it will come down to experience -- being in the semifinals and finals before and using everything you know to your advantage.
"But you never know. Anything can happen at Wimbledon."
In the next fortnight, there are sure to be some surprises. Perhaps the sun will even shine.
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