- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Pete Sampras turned Centre Court into an American showcase yesterday as they swept to straight-set victories on the opening day of Wimbledon.

Chanda Rubin also joined the act, giving the United States a remarkable 4-0 sweep on the most famous stage in tennis.

With 2001 champion Goran Ivanisevic absent following shoulder surgery, Agassi was given the honor of playing the first match on Centre Court and he didn't waste any time in underlining his title credentials.

On a day of blue, sunny skies, with a high temperature of 72 and not a rain cloud in sight, the third-seeded Agassi who won Wimbledon in 1992 took 1 hour, 29 minutes to overwhelm Israel's Harel Levy 6-0, 6-4, 6-4.

Next up came Williams, who needed only 42 minutes to dispose of 103rd-ranked Evie Dominikovic of Australia 6-1, 6-1. The second-seeded Williams had 20 winners and only one unforced error.

Then Sampras, the seven-time champion who had been questionable with a rib strain, made it 3-0 by serving 27 aces and beating Britain's Martin Lee 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-3.

"It's nice to play on Centre Court," said Sampras, who hasn't won a tournament since Wimbledon in 2000. "Stepping out there felt like coming home again. When you step out on Centre Court, it's like Mecca out there."

With the three matches over with plenty of daylight to spare, organizers moved Rubin's match against Asa Svensson from Court 13 to Centre Court. Rubin obliged with another straight-set win 6-3, 6-2.

Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Jennifer Capriati also advanced to the second round without dropping a set on a day without any significant upsets.

"It was pretty special being out there today," Agassi said of the Centre Court debut. "It was a big honor. It just felt great playing out there. Every time I'm on the court it brings back a lot of memories."

Playing his first grass-court match of the year, Agassi ripped through the opening set in just 18 minutes. Levy, who is ranked No. 326 and has won only one grass-court match in his career, raised his arms in mock triumph when he held serve to open the second set.

Agassi needed one service break to take the second set. He faltered briefly near the end of the third set when he was broken at love while serving for the match at 5-2. After Levy held at love for 5-4, Agassi didn't waver this time and served out the match.

Agassi, who is always a crowd favorite here, waved, blew kisses and bowed as the Centre Court spectators gave him a warm ovation.

Agassi, who is known more for his returns than his serves, had a surprising 16 aces and 10 service winners. Playing mostly from the baseline, he had 46 winners and 17 unforced errors.

"It felt great," Agassi said. "You can only expect so much in your first match. I felt like I took care of business from the start. I felt very comfortable."

Williams, the second-seeded woman, beamed and blew kisses after crushing a forehand service return winner on her second match point.

"It's great definitely to get out there so early," she said. "Every time I step on Centre Court, I just feel honored. I've never played on Centre Court my first round match, so I'm really excited about it."

Serena's sister, top-seeded and two-time defending champion Venus, plays her first-round match today against British wild card Jane O'Donoghue. The Williams sisters, who have shared six of the last 11 Grand Slams, are seeded to meet in the final.

Sampras had been expected to be scheduled for the Centre Court opener. But he sustained a rib strain over the weekend and asked for his match to be put back to today.

Tournament organizers rejected the request, but put him up third to give him a few extra hours for rest and treatment.

Sampras showed no sign of injury as he rode his big serve to victory over Lee, extending his Wimbledon record to 8-0 against British players.

"The injury's fine," Sampras said. "It didn't affect my game. I didn't feel it much today. It's not a big issue."

But it was far from a vintage display from Sampras, who is seeded only No.6 this year.

Sampras saved two set points while serving at 5-6 in the second set, then cruised through the tiebreaker. He was broken in the third game of the third set and fought off four more break points in the seventh game. He held serve at love to close out the match after 2 hours, 15 minutes.

"I felt like I played in spurts," Sampras said. "It's always a bit tricky when you play a lefty on grass. I played a little bit up and down. The first match, you just want to get though. I'm happy I won in straight sets."

Safin, the men's No.2 seed, defeated France's Cedric Pioline Wimbledon runner-up in 1997 7-6 (7), 6-2, 6-3.

Pioline, a grass-court specialist making his 12th successive appearance at Wimbledon, had a set point in the tiebreaker but wasted the chance with a double fault. From then on, Safin was in control.

No.5 Yevgeny Kafelnikov downed Dominik Hrbaty 6-1, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7). Hrbaty had held a 7-3 career edge against the two-time major champion.

Capriati, meanwhile, opened her bid for a first Wimbledon title with a comfortable 6-1, 6-4 win over Janette Husarova.

The third-seeded American, who has won the Australian Open twice and French Open once, played unspectacular tennis but did just enough to get past the 41st-ranked Slovakian in the opening match on Court1.

Capriati broke three times in the first set. She fell behind 3-1 in the second, but then ran off four straight games to take command.

It was an unsteady performance from Capriati, who served six double faults and had 24 unforced errors to go with her 16 winners.

"It was really close in the second set," Capriati said. "She really started playing better. I'm glad to have gotten a match like that where it wasn't too easy."

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