- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) Pete Sampras knows the ball can't always bounce his way, not even on grass. One of these days he'll misfire with his serve, an opportunistic opponent will play the match of his life, and Sampras will lose at Wimbledon.

"The bubble is going to burst," he says. "It could be this year. It could be five years from now."

Only the bravest British bookie would bet against him. Today, when tradition calls for the defending men's champion to open play on Centre Court, Sampras will begin his bid for a record eighth Wimbledon championship. He has won four in a row that's 28 matches without a loss and since 1993 he's 53-1 at the All England Club.

Still, Wimbledon's perennial title holder seems more vulnerable this year.

"It's time for somebody to step up and take it from him," Andre Agassi says.

Mounting evidence points to Sampras' decline at age 29. He hasn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal this year, hasn't won a tournament since Wimbledon last year, and hasn't won a major event besides Wimbledon since 1997.

At this late stage in his marvelous career, it appears the only title within Sampras' reach is the biggest tournament in tennis. He's like the driver who can only win the Daytona 500 or the thoroughbred who can only win the Kentucky Derby.

He'll settle for that.

"Sure, the year hasn't been great," Sampras says. "But I've always had the ability over my career to turn it on at certain moments. I'm very confident. You just get used to that feeling of being the man to beat."

Because so many top players don't like grass, the list of men with realistic title hopes is always shorter at Wimbledon than at the other major tournaments.

This year there are perhaps six, and they happen to be the top six seeds: No. 1 Sampras, No. 2 Agassi, No. 3 Patrick Rafter, No. 4 Marat Safin, No. 5 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 6 Tim Henman.

The stoic Henman is the fan favorite as he tries to become the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. The feisty Hewitt will try to duplicate his grass-court success at Queen's Club, which he won for the second straight year last week.

The erratic Safin can remind himself that he routed Sampras in last year's U.S. Open final. The athletic Rafter, the runner-up last year, will probably be playing in his final Wimbledon.

The charismatic Agassi seeks his eighth major title, and his second this year.

"If I could pick only one more Grand Slam, I would probably start here," he says.

Also capable of causing a stir is Wimbledon rookie Andy Roddick. Touted as the next great American player, the 18-year-old Floridian can serve at 130 mph, making him especially dangerous on grass, a surface he likes.

"It's really cool to see the transition to grass," he says. "It's the same game, but it's really different. You're not going to win from the baseline. It's quick points and different strategy.

"You have to take chances. That's why Pete has been such a great grass-court player. He picks his spots and really goes for it."

Sampras will start going for it against Spaniard Francisco Clavet in the opening round. He could face Henman in the quarterfinals, Safin in the semifinals and Agassi in the final.

But maybe the draw doesn't matter much. At Wimbledon against Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Henman, Mark Philippoussis, Rafter and Michael Stich, Sampras has a combined record of 14-0.

Last year's run to the title ranked among his most memorable.

Hindered by tendinitis above the left ankle that prevented him from practicing, Sampras limped through most of the tournament. Then, with his parents at Wimbledon for the first time, he summoned some of his best tennis to beat Rafter in the final.

The triumph gave Sampras a record 13 Grand Slam titles. He tied the record of seven Wimbledon titles, set by Willie Renshaw in the 1880s.

"What he has done is phenomenal, and I said that before he won last year," Agassi says. "It's incredible. It's absurd. I sit here anticipating watching him play at Wimbledon, and win or lose, I marvel at it."

It's a point well taken: Sampras at Wimbledon is something to savor, win or lose.

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