Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Martin the danger in grass struggle: As Sampras defends his title, Simon O'Hagan argues that a contrast in styles is needed to raise tennis's appeal

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THE LAST time Wimbledon clashed with the World Cup, in 1990, there was the extraordinary sight of a men's quarter- final being played in front of a half-empty Centre Court. Not so surprising, perhaps, when you consider that the tennis was a rather one-sided affair between Boris Becker and Brad Gilbert, and the football the slightly closer, not to say more dramatic, contest between England and West Germany.

Four years on, it would still take something pretty special to upstage events on the lawns of the All England Club, but on the eve of the 108th championships, it is worth reminding ourselves that there is a limit even to its appeal.

Of Wimbledon's continued success - as national institution, corporate day out and ultimate garden party - there is no doubt. But the tennis that is played there is a very different matter, and were it not for all the other things that go with Wimbledon, to be gathered under the broad heading 'Timeless Magic', Centre Court would probably find its numbers reduced more often.

A week ago, in the final of the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's, Todd Martin beat Pete Sampras 7-6 7-6 in a match that was almost the reductio ad absurdum of the grass-court game. No breaks of serves, barely a rally, everything hinging on a couple of points in the two tie-breaks. Watching it, one kept asking oneself, 'When is the tennis going to start?' It did not help that while Sampras and Martin may be perfectly decent chaps, they are not the most demonstrative. If this was a sign of things to come at Wimbledon over the next fortnight, then even Romania v Switzerland could pose a threat to it.

Grass-court tennis need not be like this, of course. In his semi-final at Queen's, Sampras himself was involved in a lovely match against an unconsidered Swede, Jan Apell, who is not ranked highly enough even to be at Wimbledon. But in general a grass-court match does need a contrast in styles if it is really to get going.

The trouble with grass is that one style - serve and volley, or, increasingly, just serve - is much more favoured than any other. So the winner of the men's singles is likely to be the best exponent of that style, preferably someone with a little extra to offer as well. That person is still the defending champion, Pete Sampras, though he seems less invincible than he did a few weeks ago.

Sampras's defeat by Martin, coming after Jim Courier had ended his hopes of doing the Grand Slam by beating him in the quarter-finals of the French Open, suggested that the chink in the armour of the world No 1 may be a little bigger than it at first seemed.

Until Paris, Sampras had trodden a seemingly inexorable path towards history. He was being spoken of as the complete player, technically and tactically. There was nothing extraneous in his play - just the right shots, played at the right time, born more of concentration, one felt, than of willpower. Sampras is not a much worse player for his setbacks of recent weeks. But he is more disappointed. At the very least, he has lost his aura of invincibility. But is there anyone capable of taking advantage of that?

Arguments against the list of obvious candidates present themselves much more readily than arguments for. In seed order, there is Michael Stich, Wimbledon champion in 1991, but on present form a long way off the almost error-free dedication that won him his title; and there is Stefan Edberg, champion in 1988 and 1990, who is even further off-form. Edberg has not made the final in any of his past five Grand Slam events, his longest barren spell since 1987. At 28, time suddenly seems to be running out.

What about Goran Ivanisevic? He remains as unpredictable as ever, so reliant on his serve that if it is broken, the balance of power can swing very quickly. Ivanisevic's record at the past five Wimbledons says it all: second round, semi-final, second round, runner-up, third round. On that basis he is due a good one.

The last baseliner to win Wimbledon was Andre Agassi in 1992; before him, Bjorn Borg in 1980. So even though Jim Courier got close last year, he is unlikely to get any closer. Which brings us to Todd Martin, conqueror of Sampras at Queen's, runner-up to him in Australia at the start of the year, and undoubtedly the man in form. Martin, 6ft 6in, is on top of his game in every sense, and if he keeps up the momentum, then neither Edberg, his projected quarter-final opponent, nor Sampras, in the semi- finals, will relish meeting him.

Take Sampras out of the equation, and the field looks very open indeed. Boris Becker, in spite of poor preparation, cannot be ruled out; Andrei Medvedev has the talent if not the experience to prosper; even Agassi, for historical reasons if no others, could be a contender in spite of his failures in big tournaments this year. It would be nice to see Sergi Bruguera, French Open champion for the past two years and a master on clay, overcome his anathema to grass on his first visit to Wimbledon for four years. He, at least, should provide the crowd with that rarest of Wimbledon commodities: rallies.

Three non-seeds will have noted the relative disarray among their supposed betters: Patrick Rafter, the 21-year-old Australian, winner of the Manchester Open on grass at Didsbury yesterday, will relish the emphasis grass places on power and pace; Greg Rusedski, the Canadian with the British passport, is a big server with more to his game than just that. Likewise the giant Dutchman Richard Krajicek. And even Jeremy Bates, playing better than ever, would be justified in nurturing hopes of a decent run.

The power game is not of course confined to the men - but until a few weeks ago only Steffi Graf, in the continued absence of Monica Seles, could claim to play it to the full among the women. But then along came Mary Pierce, with forehands like guided missiles, to obliterate Graf in the semi- finals of the French Open.

The likelihood is that Graf will win Wimbledon for the fourth successive year, and the absence of Pierce, who announced yesterday that she was withdrawing from the Championships for reasons she described as being 'beyond my control', has taken away some much-needed zest from the women's tournament.

However, in Lori McNeil, winner of the Edgbaston tournament a week ago, Graf has a tough, experienced first-round opponent who loves grass. And if Graf does slip up, that would leave only one other woman who has ever won Wimbledon - Martina Navratilova.

At 37, with a record nine titles behind her, she will be making her last appearance at the All England Club. That tears will be shed there is no doubt - and the signs are that they may come sooner rather than later.

In Paris last month Navratilova was knocked out in the first round; were that to happen at Wimbledon, a public that has grown to admire but never really love Martina would not know quite how to respond - for her opponent is the young Briton Claire Taylor. Anything can happen. Though one thing you can be sure of - there will be a full house for that one.

(Photograph omitted)