Lleyton Hewitt has a genuine chance

EACH year the defending champion gets to open the proceedings of the Wimbledon Championships on the Centre Court. This is one of the nicest traditions in the game of tennis.

What makes this even more special is that since Wimbledon is played on lawn courts, nobody gets to hit on the Centre Court until the tournament starts. This is quite different from all other major playing arenas and adds to the mystique and aura of the event.

But this year, for the first time since 1973, the defending men's singles champion will not be in the draw. 1973 of course was an extraordinary year when some 85 of the top 100 players withdrew from the Championships over a dispute. This year, the only reason Goran Ivanisevic will not be there is because he is out with a shoulder injury.

Goran Ivanisevic, last year, became the unlikeliest champion in a Grand Slam tournament. Though a three-time finalist at Wimbledon, everyone thought that his chance had gone by. He was ranked a lowly 125, not good enough to get him in the draw on merit. The Tournament Committee, in view of his wonderful record gave him a 'wild card' entry. The rest of course is history.

Right after that memorable win, Goran had talked about walking out on the Centre Court this year as the holder. But he has been bothered by a nagging shoulder injury and things became so bad that he could not postpone surgery.

This year, Pat Rafter, the losing finalist will also be absent. Two years ago, in the final, he was well on his way to a two-set lead against Pete Sampras. He let that lead and eventually the title slip.

Last year, he was the odds on favourite in the title match with Ivanisevic, a match he lost in a five-set nail-biter. Following a four-set and a five-set loss in the final, logic suggests that he should have been one of the top prospects. But last December, Rafter had decided to take a sabbatical from the game. He was suffering from a lot of physical ailments. This coupled by the fact that he is about to become a father made him take the drastic decision - one I am sure he has had second thoughts about. At this time, one does not know whether Pat would return to the courts and even if he does, the big question will be whether he can retain his past form. So at the moment, it looks like Rafter will join a select group of outstanding champions never to be crowned Wimbledon champion. (I am not able to recollect the last time both the previous year's finalists did not participate in The Championships).

So where does all this leave us? The seven time champion, Pete Sampras will definitely be licking his lips in glee. True, he has not won any title since his victory here in 2000 but the former No. 1 certainly knows his way around this tournament. Nobody would even come close to his wealth of experience, which could be a big bonus in tight situations. I feel too many people have been quick to write this champion off. Though his best days are behind him, he is still fit enough to put it all together here at SW 19. I feel it is tough for him to win a Slam at any of the other three venues. So, if he is to add to his tally, it has to be here.

The locals must be desperately hoping that this is the year their Tim Henman walks away with the prize. Each year, it is mentioned that not since 1936 has a British male won the game's biggest title. It is also 25 years since a British woman (Virginia Wade) won the title.

Tim Henman has had quite a few good looks at the title - twice losing semifinalist to Pete Sampras and last year, he lost a heart-breaking five-set match to Goran Ivanisevic. That was a match Tim Henman was well in control of, up until the infamous Wimbledon weather intervened and let the Croat back into the match.

Henman has been in good form all year, doing well both in hard and clay courts, and his game is certainly better suited to grass. He certainly has enough experience behind him but is running out of time. The pressure on him is immense but this being a World Cup year in football might be to his advantage. A lot of the British focus might be on their chances in the Far East and it might just help him sneak his way through the draw.

Two others with a genuine chance are Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi. Lleyton Hewitt is the current world No. 1 and quite possibly could be seeded No. 1. He is not a natural grass courter, but having said that, he has won the Queens Club title the past two years (This is the biggest warm up event for Wimbledon) and also scored innumerable wins in Davis Cup on grass. Lleyton is extremely fit and is a good competitor - things that will stand him in good stead. I also feel the competition is not that hot this year - and this means he might just have to beat one or two good genuine grass court specialists - something that he is well capable of. Also, chances are he would not meet them till late in the fortnight and as Bjorn Borg showed us back in the 70s, the drier court conditions suit the groundstroke specialists.

Andre Agassi plays a similar brand of tennis to Lleyton Hewitt and ever since he won the title unexpectedly in 1992, took a liking to the grass courts. Since then, he has been a finalist once and a semifinalist thrice. But in each of the past two years, he let Pat Rafter escape from his hold. The fact that he does not follow his serve to the net with any regularity puts him at a certain disadvantage.

Apart from this quartet, the only person who could go all the way is Roger Federer. He has been coming on strong and climbing up the rankings. Federer is very young and still on his way up. Last year, he knocked out Pete Sampras in a round of 16 match. That match took a lot out of him and he could not proceed any further. But he is a year older and that much better. Though men's tennis is becoming very unpredictable, I will stick my neck out and say that I can't see anyone other than these five walk away with the crown.

In the women's draw, chances are it will be a Williams vs Williams final. It is quite extraordinary to think that sisters born 15 months apart are playing Grand Slam finals with such regularity. Venus, the older sister is of course the two-time defending champion but Serena has been coming on strong lately. She beat Venus in the final of the recently concluded French Open. Both their games are better suited to grass and they would also be seeded No. 1 and No. 2. It will be a major accomplishment for any of the others to derail either of them. To beat one of the Williams is going to be tough enough. But to beat two of them, which the others would have to do could well be impossible.