Tennis: Agassi's day of destiny in a year of imponderables: WIMBLEDON '93: The men's champion begins his title defence with doubts over his fitness as Graf looks set to renew her rivalry with Navratilova

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The Independent Online
THE longest day? Perhaps not for Andre Agassi. It is possible that the Las Vegan will go the way of Manuel Santana, the only defending champion to lose in the first round at Wimbledon.

Santana, the top seed in 1967, at least arrived intact for his opening match against the American Charlie Pasarell. Agassi, with his damaged wrist, aching elbow, new rackets and lack of competitive tennis, appears to have classic symptoms for hail and farewell in spite of a promotion to No 8 in the seedings with a world ranking five places lower.

Steffi Graf, whose media conference after winning the French Open was worthy of a minor role in Les Miserables, has an injured right foot to contend with, though the consensus is that in the absence of Monica Seles the 24-year-old German could successfully defend her title on one leg.

Agassi could have an extended stay if a) his German opponent, Bernd Karbacher, proves to be debilitated by bronchitis, or b) the American showman is in better condition than we have been led to believe.

Whatever, Agassi deserves the rapturous applause which is certain to greet his entrance on to the Centre Court at 2pm for what he accomplished last year in demonstrating that it was possible to overcome the power of the serve on the All England Club's lawns.

Doubts about this were disturbing Pete Sampras even before the top seed and world No 1 became afflicted by a shoulder problem towards the end of last week. A superb server himself, Sampras lacks faith in his returns on the faster surfaces and is apt to lower his head when the points begin to run against him. He is projected to meet Agassi in the quarter-finals.

Lazy fat pigs may fly if Richard Krajicek wins the championship, though the fast-serving young Dutchman seems handily placed to do considerable damage as the ninth seed should Sampras and Agassi falter in the top quarter of the draw. Not that Krajicek will expect support from the female players after the porcine remarks he made last year.

Krajicek, in common with Sampras, serves better than he returns, which will count against him if he advances far enough to face opponents adept at both. Boris Becker and Michael Stich are among these, and many observers consider that the quarter containing the German rivals will produce the eventual winner.

Stich recently has shown the type of form which won him the title in 1991, when he defeated Becker in the final. In addition to this, he has the experience and maturity to cope better than he did as the defending champion, losing to Sampras in straight sets in the quarter-finals.

Becker cannot seem to decide whether he wants to be a bohemian or a businessman. Where tennis fits in is anybody's guess. The one constant factor is that he always wants to win at Wimbledon, where his career took flight in 1985.

Whether Becker, thrice a champion, is in good shape, physically and mentally, remains to be seen. It is worth bearing in mind that the other players recognise that when it comes to Wimbledon, he is the one to beat, whatever may have befallen him on the road to SW19.

Goran Ivanisevic is almost a composite Wimbledon champion: massive left-handed serve, sound return, impressive volleys, good footwork. But only almost. What he lacks is the temperament and concentration to serve and return the opposition silly for seven matches over the best of five sets. He was only a couple of shots short against Agassi in last year's final, but has lacked confidence since a foot injury put him out of the Australian Open in January.

Stefan Edberg, the second seed, is projected to play Ivanisevic in the semi-finals, and neither player can complain about their draw. An Ivanisevic-Jim Courier quarter-final could be interesting, if both survive to play it. Courier, whose baseline style is not tailored for Wimbledon, believes he has learned from Agassi.

A new name and a familier one are in Edberg's path. Andrei Medvedev, the 18-year-old Ukrainian, would do well to repeat his recent win against the Swede on the Paris clay, and Ivan Lendl, 33, will be relieved to advance beyond the opening round.

It is possible that Edberg will be distracted by impending fatherhood or will continue to be tentative when matches are there to be won. It is also possible that his mind will be concentrated on adding to his triumphs in 1988 and 1990. If so, the prize could be his.

Wonderful though it would be for the 100th women's tournament to be marked by a spectacular new success, the fact is that the Venus Rosewater Dish has not been out of the hands of either Graf or Martina Navratilova for the past 11 years.

A 10th victory for Navratilova would be appropriate, for no player has been greater. Even at 36, the Czech-born American may still represent the most serious challenge to Graf on this surface.

Jennifer Capriati, of whom too much was expected too soon, is still only 17 and is capable of defeating anyone when her game is not impeded by self-doubt and the general problems that go with growing up, particularly in the abnormal circumstances of professional tennis.

Gabriela Sabatini had her chance to defeat Graf in the 1991 final and seems less likely to succeed now. Her confidence was shredded by Mary Joe Fernandez at the French Open. Fernandez then had Graf on the run in the final in Paris, until it came to le crunch.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario may feel she has something to prove after being relegated behind Navratilova in the seedings, and Mary Pierce may make an interesting debut, sans disruptive father.

What the women's game needs is for one of the above to make the breakthrough. Better still, for an unseeded player such as Miriam Oremans, the 20-year-old from the Netherlands who tested Navratilova in Saturday's final at Eastbourne, to create the sensation.

Fears have been expressed that we could be in for a dull tournament, with the prospect of early departures by leading personalities from the men's singles, which already lacks John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to flavour the pot.

Maybe so, but this overlooks an important consideration. Wimbledon is the biggest name in the game, as was demonstrated when the top men boycotted the championships in 1973. Victors would be feted even if they were recruited from local park courts (Lawn Tennis Association please note), though I suspect that the names will be Edberg and Graf.