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Wimbledon Will Prove Once Again Who Is Able to Cut It on the Grass

June 26, 1989|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Ion Tiriac looked at the world's most famous tennis tournament through dark sunglasses and saw nothing unusual.

Who will win Wimbledon? There are only five men who have a chance, Tiriac said--Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and John McEnroe.

Not Michael Chang?

"He's got big trouble," said Tiriac, Becker's manager. "It's difficult to compete against speed and power and all those things, and it doesn't matter how intelligent you are."

Chang, ranked No. 6 in the world after winning the French Open, is seeded ninth and plays Bill Scanlon in a first-round match today as the $5.3-million Wimbledon Championships begin.

Chang's victory over Edberg in the French Open final was on a clay court, but he has proven vulnerable on grass. Last year here, he lasted only two rounds, losing to Henri Leconte of France in four sets.

There is a vast difference between clay and grass, according to Tiriac.

"On clay, it is a bicycle race," he said. "You have time to get to the ball. Grass is Formula One. Miss one ball and you lose a lap. Lose one break point and you lose your life. You don't lose your life, really, you just lose your match."

Chang, the Placentia teen-ager who lost in the first round of a grass-court exhibition two weeks ago in the Netherlands, did not care to discuss his prospects. He practiced Sunday with his grass-court coach, Brian Gottfried, then said he was taking a day off from the media.

So it was left to Gottfried to analyze Chang's chances.

"I think he'll do OK," Gottfried said.

What's OK?

"I just know in the next couple of years, he'll be fine on this (grass)," Gottfried said. "With a little experience and a little confidence, he'll be better. I can't equate thatinto rounds. But I think he'll be a threat here in the next few years."

However, that leaves the matter of this year still undecided.

There may be no such uncertainty among the women. Steffi Graf of West Germany is rated the odds-on favorite to defend her Wimbledon title.

Despite Graf's shocking loss to 17-year-old Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez in the French Open final, her place in the women's final, many think, is virtually assured.

Great Britain's Virginia Wade, who won at Wimbledon in 1977, said she knew of no one who can challenge Graf's game.

"It's pure genius," Wade said. "It's a privilege to watch somebody as good as that. I can't see that anybody is going to beat her if she is feeling well and totally fit.

"Basically, it's nobody else who can beat her, it could be her who could let herself down."

Still, there are some that might like the chance. Martina Navratilova is coming off a victory at Eastbourne and might offer a challenge. So, too, could Chris Evert.

In what may be her last Wimbledon, an event which she has won three times but not since 1981, Evert is apparently healthy after withdrawing from Eastbourne because of an ear infection.

Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina also could be a contender, but she has never advanced past the semifinals at Wimbledon. Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia, seeded sixth, is formidable on grass but is suffering from a knee injury and may be forced to withdraw.

The top-ranking men are healthy and playing well, except possibly for Wilander, who was eliminated in the second round of the Australian Open and in the quarterfinals of the French.

Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam events last year but not Wimbledon.

"I would never, never rule out Mats," Tiriac said. "What? Did he forget how to play tennis?"

An unexpected wave of warm and sunny weather has dried the grass courts and made them harder, Tiriac said--which could favor those with big serves even more than it already does.

McEnroe, who did not play the French Open, won two small grass-court tournaments, then lost to Jim Pugh of Palos Verdes in the first round of an exhibition at Wirral. McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champion, said he is pleased with his preparations.

"That loss to Pugh was inconsequential," McEnroe said. "I'll know how good I am when I step out on the court Tuesday."

McEnroe's first match is against Darren Cahill of Australia.

Tiriac said McEnroe's chances depend on how he plays the first week.

"If he feels he can win, he'll be a threat to anybody," Tiriac said. "John is good for any day, any match. But it depends on what he runs over, how many bumps he is going to find in the road."

Tennis Notes

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