Sampras ready to rise again

Wimbledon 1995: Holder still has the appetite to overcome the turmoil of the past year. Simon O'Hagan reports
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MOST players agree: Wimbledon is the hardest of the Grand Slams to win as it is played on the surface of which they have the least experience. Andre Agassi dignifies the four-week grass-court period between the end of the French Open and the end of Wimbledon by calling it "a season". In reality, it is little more than a brief but spectacular diversion amid the much longer stretches of clay-court, hard-court and indoor tennis.

It is not that grass is uniformly disliked - although there are plenty to whom it is anathema. But, like the local speciality that looks wonderful on the plate, it can be an acquired taste. What is interesting about this year's men's singles is that even those players who would normally expect to have a healthy appetite as they sit down at the table may only want to pick at their food.

Take the top three seeds - Agassi, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker, all past winners whose love of Wimbledon goes accordingly very deep, but with reason to approach the 1995 Championships feeling a little less optimistic than usual.

For Sampras, champion for the past two years, the defence of his title has been made vastly more problematic by the psychological turmoil he has been through since the start of the year. That was when, during the Australian Open, his coach and closest ally Tim Gullikson fell dangerously ill with a brain tumor. Dedicated and utterly professional though Sampras is, he has never really come to terms with Gullikson's absence, and his tennis has suffered as a result.

Sampras has brought in his fellow-American Paul Annacone to help him. A doubles specialist and pro since 1984, Annacone has found himself in a slightly indeterminate position - trying to guide Sampras through a difficult period while still referring to Gullikson. Under this arrangement, Sampras endured a clay-court campaign he described as "disastrous", culminating in a first-round defeat at the French Open.

On the grass courts of Queen's a week ago, Sampras looked to be working his way back to form, beating Guy Forget in the Stella Artois final. But, with the serve of both men dominant, it was tight - Sampras winning 7- 6 7-6. He will not relish the prospect of meeting Forget in the fourth round of Wimbledon, which is what the draw schedules.

If you are looking for an upset, that could be one. Forget, ranked 1,130th last year after a long absence following a knee operation, has risen steadily back up and can be a brilliant player on grass, a surface he loves. In recognition of his specialised ability he was made 16th seed in spite of being ranked only 21 in the world. Sampras has other potentially awkward obstacles to overcome - the young British player Tim Henman in the second round, and in the third, possibly, one of rising stars of Australian tennis, Scott Draper, a lucky loser from the qualifying competition.

Since losing to Todd Martin in the fourth round in 1994, Agassi has had an astonishing year, winning the US Open and the Australian Open, and taking over from Sampras as the world No 1. But a small cloud passed over him at the French when, impaired by a hip injury, he lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals. Agassi arrived in London last week declaring he was fully fit, but it remains to be seen whether the disruption to his grass-court preparation has had any effect on his game.

The draw has not been too unkind to Agassi, though he will beware of a third-round tie against David Wheaton, a semi-finalist in 1991. Agassi is then scheduled to meet Andrei Medvedev in the fourth round and Wayne Ferreira in the quarters.

Agassi's semi-final opponent will, in theory, be Becker, victim of Forget at Queen's and of the rather less illustrious Adrian Voinea, a Romanian qualifier, in the third round of the French Open. Becker has a tendency capitulate when you least expect him to, and this was one of those occasions. But on the 10th anniversary of his victory here in 1985 Becker will be intent on keeping a grip.

Becker looks to have a clear run to the fourth round, where a likely meeting with Stefan Edberg would revive memories of the three finals they contested in 1988, 1989 and 1990. But Becker has stayed the course better since, and if he were to get past him now the prospect in the last eight is a meeting with Jim Courier or Michael Chang. He would expect to beat either.

The biggest servers always have a chance at Wimbledon, none more so than the fourth seed, Goran Ivanisevic, runner-up last year. If he can stay "focused", to use the jargon, he could be in a position to go one better this time. Todd Martin, a semi-finalist last year, stands in his way in the fourth round, before a possible meeting with Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the young Russian who reached the semi-finals in the French Open.

Kafelnikov, although a big server himself, is also one of the better touch players, whose skills Wimbledon will be hoping to bring out by their decision to reduce the pressure in the balls and the domination of the "power" players. On the evidence of Queen's, where similar balls were used, they may not succeed.

If you want rallies, seek out the clay-court specialists before they get blown away. The Latins are a good bet. Meanwhile, the most aesthetically pleasing first-round match could be the one between the Argentine Javier Frana, who did well at Nottingham last week, and the veteran Frenchman Henri Leconte.

British success? It would be nice to think so. But Henman is not the only one with a tough draw. Greg Rusedski, lately arrived from Canada, is also in the Forget/Sampras section of the draw, while Jeremy Bates, who has reached the fourth round in two of the past three years, has an awkward opener against Derrick Rostagno, and if succesful would have Martin and Ivanisevic looming.

The women's tournament looks a two-horse race. Steffi Graf may be living on borrowed time but, unbeaten this year, she is making good use of it and yesterday she successfully played three one-hour practice sessions at Wimbledon having flown back to Germany for treatment on her right wrist last week. Tough for Martina Hingis, the 14-year-old Swiss, to have meet her in the first round, and somehow one cannot see her doing to Graf what Lori McNeil managed at the same stage last year.

The woman most likely to stop Graf winning a sixth crown is the holder Conchita Martinez. From looking like a one-title wonder after beating Martina Navratilova and then losing her way towards the end of 1994, she is back to her best and gave Graf a fright in the semis of the French. Still, I take Graf to pip her. In the men? Sampras to beat Becker.