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Wimbledon Has a Hole in Defense


WIMBLEDON, England — Tradition has taken a nasty hit. No one's fault, really, but the gents around this club have been put in something of a spot.

What in the world should be done about Centre Court on Monday?

Tradition, beloved tradition, holds that the defending men's champion at Wimbledon be placed first on Centre Court on opening day, which used to be practically known as Pete Sampras Day. But the holder, Goran Ivanisevic, is unavailable for duty because of shoulder surgery.

Even last year's runner-up, Pat Rafter, would have been suitable. But he's otherwise engaged, soon to be a father and uncertain about returning to the game. Naturally, Britain's Tim Henman would be a wonderful choice--worth a few toasts of sherry from the chaps in the All England Club--but there's one small problem. He hasn't won here yet, or even reached the final.

And so, the odds-on favorite is Sampras. The world's No. 1 player, Lleyton Hewitt, endorsed the idea, pointing out that Sampras is the most recent winner in the field: "He's probably going to go down as the greatest player to ever play there."

On the plus side, a seven-time champion, a class act, should count for something. Then again, Sampras' 2002 grass-court record, one win and losses to Alex Corretja and Nicolas Kiefer, is an obvious minus.

Another idea: leaving Centre Court vacant for an hour Monday.

It would certainly be a metaphor for the men at Wimbledon, especially in the context about the logical successor to struggling Sampras. If not Pete, who?

"There are not a whole lot of guys who believe that they can win Wimbledon. If this isn't a year for the nonbelievers to believe, there won't ever be," said former player and Turner Sports television commentator Jim Courier. "We don't have a clear-cut favorite like we've had for the past decade. Before Sampras, we had [Boris] Becker and [Stefan] Edberg."

British hope-in-waiting Greg Rusedski believes there are 10 good grass-court players in the field, counting himself. He does note that this is the year of the journeyman-turned-Slam-winner: Thomas Johansson at the Australian Open and Albert Costa at the French Open.

"If you were to start the year and say those two guys are going to win the Slams, you would have gotten 100-1, so it's wide open," said Rusedski, whose best Wimbledon finish was the quarterfinals in 1997.

The women's side is much more definitive, starting and ending with someone named Williams. Sisters Venus and Serena Williams met in the French Open final earlier this month, with Serena prevailing in another sloppy, error-riddled affair, and it seems only an injury, illness or strange occurrence could prevent another all-Williams final, this time on grass.

Venus, the No. 1 seeded player, is two-time defending champion and has not lost a match at Wimbledon since going out in the quarterfinals against Steffi Graf in 1999. Serena's best finish at Wimbledon was the semifinals in 2000.

Still, Venus says she does not have the sense of invincibility at Wimbledon. Her victories at Wimbledon came shortly after particularly bad losses at the French Open.

"Sometimes if I go into tournaments overconfident, those are the ones that I lose," she said. "Tournaments where I go in really not exactly sure it will be mine, those are the ones I seem to do better in."

Former champions Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport are missing the tournament, no surprise because they both skipped Paris, continuing to recover from surgeries. Jennifer Capriati, a semifinalist last year, and 2001 finalist Justine Henin of Belgium have not been able to sustain consistent form against the Williamses.

The sisters made history this month by becoming the first siblings to be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in tennis.

"It would be like Tiger Woods' kid brother being the No. 2 golfer in the world," television commentator Mary Carillo said. "It's almost science fiction that this thing can happen and they're both so young. As long as they want to dominate they can."

Said Venus: "Obviously, right now it's as great as we've ever been, being in the finals of a Grand Slam again and No. 1 and No. 2. It doesn't get much better than this. These are great moments that we have to enjoy and are going to enjoy whether I want to or not. Obviously it's not always going to be 1 and 2 the whole time and it's not always going to be Grand Slam finals every single time."

Still, the view from the top on the women's side is exclusive. Three women have won the last eight Grand Slam titles--Venus Williams (four), Capriati (three) and Serena Williams (one).

It's the opposite for the men, almost seeming like a bingo game. Eight men have won the last eight majors--Costa, Johansson, Hewitt (2001 U.S. Open), Ivanisevic (2001 Wimbledon), Gustavo Kuerten (2001 French Open), Andre Agassi (2001 Australian Open), Marat Safin (2000 U.S. Open) and Sampras (2000 Wimbledon).

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