Sampras has the number eight figured

American's leading rivals have not changed. And the result won't change either
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The Independent Online

Just as well that Wimbledon is a structure of tradition and unchanging excellence, since there is not much change, either, in the team sheet of those who can win the men's championship. We are faced with a familiar list of suspects, topped by the head honcho, Pete Sampras, who has won more titles in this country than Manchester United.

Barring an overturning of form high on the Richter Scale, there are really only four in addition to Sampras who can lift the cup – Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman – and Wimbledon have been astute as ever in seeding them accordingly, though account will have to be taken of floaters who will be a danger on the grass, such as Greg Rusedski and Wayne Arthurs.

The absence through injury this year of grass-court powerhouses like Mark Philippoussis, the Australian who knocked out Henman in the fourth round last year, and Richard Krajicek, the only one to disrupt the Sampras hegemony by winning in 1996, serves only to emphasise the dearth of suitable candidates to accept the All England Club's tie and honorary membership, as well as a cheque for £500,000.

Philippoussis has struggled with a wonky left knee ever since it gave out on him when he seemed on the way to defeating Sampras in the quarter-finals two years ago. There were further operations last November and again in March and the rumour factory is circulating bleak news about his career prospects.

As for Krajicek, it seems that every year something gives out – shoulder, knee, elbow – and it is questionable whether he will ever manage a return to the searing form of '96. Perhaps he is what John McEnroe would term a "one-Slam wonder".

No doubt Rusedski was seriously put out that his recovery this year has not been sufficient to lift him high enough in the rankings to earn even one of the 32 seeds which are this year's innovation. But the familiar grin will have broken through when he looked at the draw. As one former British player said: "Greg couldn't have picked a better draw if he had bribed someone." As long as Rusedski keeps his head and his serve, remembering that he should go into action with Plans B and C as well as the frontal assault of Plan A, he could prosper beyond even his wildest dreams. Seeds such as Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya and Alberto Martin might induce nightmares on the red stuff, but on grass it is they who will fear him. Rusedski starts onCentre Court tomorrow against Romania's Andrei Pavel.

The other big-serving danger man, Arthurs, could not have been unluckier with his first-round opponent, having to face Max Mirnyi, the giant from Belarus who wallops the first delivery almost as hard as he does. If he survives that one, Arthurs – who developed his serve by throwing stones as a boy and who still reckons he can hurl one a hundred yards – could cull a couple of clay experts before a possible fourth round against his compatriot, Rafter.

The big question, however, is whether Sampras is up for an eighth Wimbledon title. Assiduous Pete-watchers detect the first glint of a downturn but the sight of Centre Court is guaranteed to buck up a man without a title since he won here 12 months back. There is no doubt that the effort Sampras put into clinching his sixth straight year as No 1 by the end of 1998 took something out of him that has not been replaced. There is the added factor, which might or might not prove a distraction to his tennis fortunes, that he married last autumn and has become a devotee of that way of life.

But Sampras has won here enough times virtually to do it again in his sleep. He lifted that record 13th Grand Slam, and seventh Wimbledon, after a fortnight in which, by his own admission, he did not play well until the final, when he needed to play very well indeed to hold off Rafter.

The urgency of that Rafter challenge was not unconnected with the state of his shoulder. "Could give out any time, mate," is how he has summed up the problem, and after one operation already the popular Aussie would be finished if that happened.

The other Australian in the vanguard of challengers, Hewitt, chalked up impressive wins over both Sampras and Henman in the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's recently and is predictably, not to mention agggressively, confident about his chances . Hewitt will be careful not to make the same mistake as last year, when he went out in the first round to the excellent American grass player, Jan-Michael Gambill, but this time the 20-year-old from Adelaide has nobody of that calibre near him in the draw. That said, those recent victories over Sampras and Henman were achieved in best-of-three set contests. Over best-of-five, Sampras and Henman are much different propositions. The Briton, in particular, thrives on long matches.

Agassi has been lying low since his ignominious exit from the French Open – that embarrassing quarter-final collapse to Sebastien Grosjean before the disbelieving gaze of Bill Clinton. Should they collide in the Wimbledon quarters, which is a possibility, don't put money on the Frenchman this time.

As for Henman, has his time come as our columnist John Lloyd asserts? One would like to think so, and if he surmounts the Sampras quarter-final barrier he could certainly march the distance, urged on by an audience who would find it difficult to avoid partisanship. The fact that Henman's opener tomorrow will be on Court Two, the "graveyard of champions", should not be too worrying, since his opponent is the Russian qualifier, Artem Derepasko. But the feeling in this corner is that Sampras will do the business for what may well be the last time.