Confident Rusedski leads unseeded challenge

John Roberts on the moment of truth for Britain's new No 1 who today takes on the defending champion on Centre Court

Last Tarango in Wimbledon might be a hard act to follow, but Greg Rusedski will endeavour to raise the tone of the proceedings by giving Pete Sampras a run for his title on the Centre Court this afternoon.

The British No 1 from Montreal is one of nine unseeded players in the last 16 of the men's singles. Two are guaranteed a place in the quarter- finals: the winners of matches between Petr Korda and Cedric Pioline and Michael Joyce and Shuzo Matsuoka.

Sampras has won 17 consecutive matches in pursuit of a hat-trick of Wimbledon championships. His last loss on a grass court was to an American compatriot, Todd Martin, in the final at Queen's Club last year. Martin will be on Court One today, attempting to return serves powered by the mighty left arm of Goran Ivanisevic. On Court 14, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian sixth seed who is also in Sampras's scope for the semi-finals, will try not to be enticed into a marathon by the unseeded American, Aaron Krickstein.

By this stage of the tournament, every survivor ought to be fancying their chances, if only secretly, particularly with the courts beginning to show signs of wear and tear after a scorching first week. Whatever the weather holds, playing conditions could be a major factor.

Will the mountie get his man? Rusedski will rely on his big serve and massive home support; home being London nowadays. He hopes to keep Sampras off balance and prevent him from performing with his usual rhythm. "I hope we go to a few tie-breaks," he said. "They might tell the tale."

Sampras prefers to remember the cordial atmosphere during his straight sets win against Oxford's Tim Henman in the second round last week rather than his spat with spectators on an outside court when he defeated Andrew Foster, of Stoke, in the fourth round two years ago.

"It was a pretty loud group," Sampras recalled, "but I've played a couple of Davis Cup matches where the crowd wasn't really for me. I'm sure it will be vocal, but I'll have to shut that out and play my tennis. It's really no big deal.''

The winner will play Joyce, ranked No 119, or Matsuoka, No 108. The American and the Japanese have fathers involved in the movie industry, both of whom would probably be inclined to tear up a screenplay featuring their son - or Rusedski - winning the world's greatest championship.

Andre Agassi, the top seed and world No 1, opens the second week on the Centre Court against Alexander Mronz, a 30-year-old German whose earlier claim to fame was as Steffi Graf's former boyfriend. Henceforth, he will be remembered as the opponent when Jeff Tarango decided to take his rackets home.

Wayne Ferreira, the seventh seed, is determined to persuade the folks back home in South Africa that an oval ball is not the only symbol of success. He is required to overcome the unseeded Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh, before checking if Agassi is next in the last eight.

Boris Becker, who is projected to meet Agassi in the semi-finals, faces the Belgian, Dick Norman, on Court Two, which is known as the graveyard of champions. The 6ft 8in Norman has seen off two former champs, Pat Cash, who retired hurt, and Stefan Edberg, who compared the experience to a meeting with Goliath.

Norman's conquests are all the more remarkable since the 24-year-old from Waregem scraped into the tournament as a lucky loser from the pre- qualifying event. He was defeated by Sandon Stolle in the final round at Roehampton, and on Saturday he eliminated another Australian, Todd Woodbridge, for the right to play Becker.

While it is obvious that Norman has a big serve, the precise speed of his deliveries will remain a mystery unless he comes within the scope of the speed gun on the Centre Court.

Strong on taciturnity, Norman tried not to sound even quietly confident. "I think you always have a little chance, and I will go for it. But I don't know how big my chance is, or how small my chance is, to win against Boris. Maybe he might be worried because he doesn't know me at all. None of the good players have ever seen me before, and they don't know how I play." They are learning fast.

If Becker prevails, he will play either Korda or Pioline. Both have advanced to a Grand Slam final, only to be brushed aside in straight sets. Korda was defeated by Jim Courier at the 1992 French Open, Pioline by Sampras at the 1993 United States Open.

When Rusedski mentioned that he had been to see the Three Sisters, he was not referring to the Maleevas from Bulgaria, none of whom have made the slightest impression on this occasion. The opening week of the women's tournament was dominated by regular bulletins on the condition of Steffi Graf's back and a fair amount of praise for Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's improvement on the grass courts.

The favourites may have noted that Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, the Dutch No 15 seed, is still contention. A winner of the junior title in 1988, she is 6ft 2in and has the biggest serve in the women's game.

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