Tennis: Graf charts a sentimental journey

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WHAT ODDS Wimbledon staging a repeat of that wonderful conclusion to the French Open, with titles for Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi? Well, 84-1 actually, according to the William Hill organisation. Graf is second favourite, at 4-1, to the girl she vanquished in Paris, Martina Hingis (priced at 6-4), but the bookmakers seem to think Agassi may have embarked on a colossal celebration since Roland Garros and have marked him down at 16-1, odds which some may find attractively generous.

However, with the occasional exception (Richard Krajicek in 1996 and Conchita Martinez in 1994) Wimbledon is about form horses, the recognised thoroughbreds who go well on grass. Hence Pete Sampras, winner in five of the last six years and newly reinstated as world No 1, is 11-8 favourite to lift a sixth men's championship, while only the fact that she is now 30 prevents Graf from ousting the 18-year-old Hingis as the lowest-priced woman.

Possibly the betting folk have more belief in Sampras than he holds in his own ability to go one better than Bjorn Borg. Title number six, and what would be the fourth in succession, could prove frustratingly just beyond Pete's fingertips after the annus horribilis he has suffered so far - a delayed start to his season and a succession of miserable defeats redeemed only at the last gasp by victory in the Stella Artois championships at Queen's Club last weekend.

However, he remains short of match play, as he concedes. He is not, as Chris Evert used to say, tournament tough. But what he does undeniably bring to the party is a surfeit of grass court, especially Centre Court, experience and he will, accordingly, be mighty difficult to separate from the trophy. Pete is not yet 28 but the effort of clinching a sixth successive year at No 1 last season may have inflicted lasting damage, despite the two-month break he subsequently enjoyed and which has got him into the out-of-form mess he has been in of late.

Sampras also faces a test or three, with the possibility of having to tackle the French Open runner-up and the man who beat him in Paris, Andrei Medvedev, in the fourth round, Greg Rusedski in the quarter-finals and Tim Henman in the semis. Can he step up to the line and march through in familiar, confident fashion? The likelihood is, not.

This is the time of year when optimism about Henman's chances takes on the quality of a helium balloon, but this time round there is an extra hullabaloo, with the asking price for a ticket to the men's final already peaking at pounds 1,600, which is a bit above the admission charge the last time a British man, Fred Perry, collared the cup in 1936. At 7-1, Henman is the second favourite and, bless him, the deadening weight of expectation hardly seems to be noticed. In the matter of natural progression the sixth- seeded Henman should get as far as the final, having been in the quarters in 1996 and 1997 and the semis last year.

A careful scanning of his section of the draw uncovers nobody likely to induce a stumble, unless Carlos Moya comes up with a hitherto unsuspected affinity with grass or Yevgeny Kafelnikov remembers he is the Australian Open champion. Twelve months on Henman is a much-improved operator, yet the familiar flaws remain; an unreliable first serve and the tendency to let lesser lights off the ropes on occasion though not, it has to be said, at Wimbledon. If he gets as far as the semi-finals it could be Sampras for Tim, as it was last year. Tickets for that one could fetch pounds 1,600, too.

Britain's other big hope, the ninth-seeded Greg Rusedski, gets a 14-1 rating from the bookies which, on form, looks about right. This year he has won 22 matches but lost 16, with only one final (Battersea in February). Greg had set high hopes on grass following his ankle injury last year and though he got to the last eight at the Stella Artois and the semi-finals in Nottingham it was done without noticeable panache.

Rusedski has a brute of a start tomorrow, against the solid Australian son of a bush farmer, Jason Stoltenberg, who got to the Wimbledon semi- finals three years ago. If he spends more time concentrating on winning than his irritating rituals of face-mopping and fiddling with his shoelaces, Rusedski could find subsequent progress easier. There is a quarter-final possibility against Sampras but Greg beat him indoors in Paris last November and a repeat could set up an all-British semi-final. But let's not get carried away just yet.

All the big boomers are high in the betting and the seeding. Agassi may just disrupt them, but not since the US Open of 1996, followed by the Australian Open of 1997, has the same man (Sampras) appeared in consecutive Grand Slam finals. Besides, Agassi is projected to meet Krajicek in the quarter-finals and, despite a dip in form following an upbeat early part of the year, the 6ft 5in Dutchman is formidable on grass and has gone the distance once before. Krajicek is in a quarter every bit as easy-looking as Henman's and if he starts to blow hot, he could prove difficult to cool down.

The Australian duo of Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis will have their backers, with Philippoussis looking in the sharper form. Also, a certain Boris Becker is lurking in Rafter's vicinity. A sentimental favourite, as ever, will be the three-time runner-up, Goran Ivanisevic, who seems to alternate appearances in the final with disastrously early exits. The temptation to plump for Henman is strong but the case for a second Krajicek victory seems stronger.

Among the women, the defending champion Jana Novotna has been brought low by an ankle injury sustained at the French Open. So, in addition to the cutting dismissal by Hingis that, at 30, Novotna is "too old and too slow" can be added the fact that she is also well short of full fitness. With her notoriously fickle temperament in closing out matches, Novotna is not fancied to march, or even limp, into a fourth final.

Hingis can be guaranteed to be on goody-goody behaviour after the Paris disaster. Her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, will ensure that much as Martina the Younger bids for a second Wimbledon crown, though Graf is again the sentimental favourite. Despite the late withdrawal of Serena Williams from her section, Steffi has a demanding draw later on, notably a projected quarter-final against the other Williams girl, Venus. But if injury can be avoided Graf must be fancied to go the distance for an eighth time.

So then, Krajicek and Graf to clink glasses at the Savoy champions' dinner a fortnight tonight.

Profiles of Graf and Sampras

in Wimbledon Supplement

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