Sampras, the favourite

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST

THE Wimbledon Championship follows the French Open in quick succession. It is like a two-act play with a short intermission of two weeks and as far as the men's singles is concerned, it looks as if an entirely new cast of "actors" have to get ready for the second act.

In the past years, a lot of those who did well in Paris went through the charade of playing at Wimbledon. But this year, there is every possibility that some of them may not even bother to show up. Gustavo Kuerten has already gone on record that he would like to take off from the game during that period. And last year, Alex Corretja and Juan Carlos Ferrero withdrew from Wimbledon because the tournament had not seeded them.

What makes all this so significant is that these two championships, French Open and Wimbledon, are played on surfaces, clay and grass respectively, which are at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

As far as clay is concerned, consistency from the back court is paramount. Ten to twelve shot rallies are common place and one has to really probe for openings. It is thrust and parry, a la fencing.

And then on grass, everything gets speeded up. The ball does not stay in play more than three or four times in a point. So the rhythm of the match is entirely different. On clay, a point starts at a slow pace and works itself to a crescendo. It is the exact opposite on grass. In cricketing terminology, the difference would be between playing on a slow turner and a fast bouncy track.

Which is why very few players have made the transition. Bjorn Borg was the last one to do it successfully. He did it not once, but three years in a row (between 1978-1980) and that may be one of the lasting legacies of the great Swede.

As far as Wimbledon is concerned, the odds on favourite for the men's title has to be Pete Sampras. It does not matter that he has been struggling with form. It does not matter that he has not won a title since his victory there last year. What matters is that once he sets foot on these famous lawn courts, he is transformed. He has won the title seven times in the last eight attempts, against much tougher opposition, under all kinds of conditions.

First and foremost, top notch grass courters like Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have retired. Then, big servers who have beaten him here in the past - Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek are struggling with their form, motivation and injuries. The ever dangerous Mark Philippoussis, who is one of the few players capable of taking on an in-form Sampras is out with a knee injury. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether he will play in the Wimbledon championship but even if he does, he will not be match tough.

Though he may not be ranked very high, Pat Rafter will be one of the dangerous opponents for Sampras. It will be interesting to see which half of the draw the Aussie is in. Last year, in the final, he led Sampras by a set and had a winning lead in the second set tie break before letting the match slip away. Rafter has an excellent record against Sampras as his net rushing style gives the defending champion all kinds of trouble.

Andre Agassi has proved his credentials on all surfaces against all opposition. He has won the title at Wimbledon in 1992, was the finalist in 1999 and a losing semi-finalist on two occasions. So other than Sampras, he has the best record of all the players this year. But like Bjorn Borg two decades ago, Agassi relies a lot on his back court game and could be vulnerable against the big servers early in the tournament. But should he progress far enough into the tournament to face Sampras, I feel the latter should come through. Agassi does not attack the net enough to trouble Sampras and also tends to bring out the best in the seven time champion.

Though Lleyton Hewitt is not a natural serve and volleyer, he is from Australia - a country that has given us so many wonderful grass court players. I am sure he will bring a little bit of that confidence with him. He is a big match player, extremely fit, and a good competitor. Hewitt also has the advantage of playing a lot of home Davis Cup matches on grass and that experience could prove very vital in critical moments in the tournament.

The home nation would certainly be a factor in the men's draw.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski have it in them to trouble any of the big guns. Henman has reached the last four twice whereas Rusedski has been a losing quarter finalist. So they both know what it is like to be at the finishing end of this tournament. What could be a factor are the expectations of an entire nation! I am sure it has been drilled into their heads that the last Briton to win a men's singles title at Wimbledon was way back in 1936 - Fred Perry. And that could be too much of a burden to carry!

Another interesting factor is to see how the committee is going to seed the players - according to the rankings or as per performance on grass. This already has become a controversy. Players like Kuerten, Ferrero and Corretja feel it should be strictly by computer rankings. But the problem is the computer cannot differentiate whether your victories have been from the back court or not. So, if you go strictly by ranking, there is every possibility that the grass court specialists - players like Sampras, Rafter, Henman and Rusedski can all get thrown into one section of the draw making it very lopsided. While I feel you can use the rankings as a broad parameter, weightage should certainly be given to past performance, especially on a surface like grass.

In the women's draw, the person to talk about is Jennifer Capriati. From nowhere, she has won the first two legs of the Grand Slam. In doing so, she joins a very select group of women. This is quite a Cinderella story. She should do well at Wimbledon but will have to watch out for players like Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport. Another thing I noticed in her matches in Paris is that she did not necessarily close out her matches neatly. Against Serena Williams, she led by a set and 5-2, had match points and squandered to come back to win in three sets. And in the final, she had to serve for the title three times. Things are going so well for her at the moment that if she can rectify this part, she will be even tougher.

Our boys are back in the hunt. It was nice to see "Lee" and "Hesh" do it again in Paris - the scene of their maiden Grand Slam victory. Though unseeded, they played like favourites en route to their third Slam tilte together. This means they will get seeded at Wimbledon which will protect them in the early rounds of the tournament. Their confidence must be sky high. In fact, they will be the only team in the Wimbledon draw to have won the title before!

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