Pete Sampras, as ever, is the man to beat at Wimbledon, which starts next Monday, and Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski may have to face the seven-times champion or each other if Britain is to have a representative in the men's singles final for the first time since 1938.
Henman, the sixth seed, is projected to meet the top-seeded Sampras in the quarter-finals. If the appointment is kept, Sampras's Wimbledon record for nine years going into the match would be: won 57, lost 1. Make that 58-1 if the unseeded Rusedski advances far enough to earn a crack at Sampras in the semi-finals.
In playful mood yesterday, Henman glanced at your correspondent's scribbles on the draw sheet and said: "You've put down Sampras or Henman for the semi-finals aren't you backing me to win?"
Britain's No 1 had devoted his lunchtime to promoting a celebrity golf day, to be held at Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, on 2 October, in aid of his charity organisation, Kids at Heart. Last year's event raised £182,000 for Sargent Cancer Care for Children and SPARKS. This year Henman has selected the charities Honeypot and Tommy's as beneficiaries.
Like most players, Henman tries to close his mind to the remainder of the draw beyond his immediate opponent, in this case a yet to be identified qualifier in the first round. But Sampras's name leaps off the page at Wimbledon, where the Californian's only loss in the past eight championships was to the Dutchman Richard Krajicek in the quarter-finals in 1996. Injury has ruled out Krajicek this year.
Sampras has beaten Henman in their previous four meetings on grass three times at Wimbledon, in the second round in 1995 and consecutive semi-finals in 1998 and 1999, and in the Queen's Club final in 1999 and Henman's only victory in seven matches against the maestro was on a concrete court in Cincinnati last August.
"I don't look ahead as much as you guys do," Henman said, "but I'm always aware who's in my section of the draw. Pete's going to be the favourite, but we'll have to see how things work out.
"To do well you have to improve on what you've done before, so my goal is to reach the final and win it. If you're going to win, you've got to beat the best, whether it's in the first round or the final.
"Taking it one step at a time, I feel optimistic and I feel positive about my game. It doesn't matter who I play."
Conscious of how dangerous qualifiers can be, Henman gave the recent example of the American Michael Russell, who held a match point against Gustavo Kuerten in the fourth round of the French Open before the Brazilian recovered and made a successful defence of the title.
Sampras's first-round opponent is the 32-year-old Spaniard Francisco Clavet, and if the champion wins that one he will play one of the British wild cards, either Barry Cowan or Mark Hilton.
Rusedski's first-round opponent is Romania's Andrei Pavel, who is placed one spot behind the British No 2 in the ATP entry system, at No 43. A third-round match between Rusedski and Juan Carlos Ferrero, the Spanish No 8 seed, is a possibility, and a fourth-round between Rusedski and either Andy Roddick, the 18-year-old American prospect, or Goran Ivanisevic, three times a finalist but competing here on a wild card this year, cannot be ruled out.
Andre Agassi, seeded to meet Australia's Pat Rafter in a reprise of last year's semi-final, opens against the Dutchman Peter Wessels, and is projected to play Australia's Lleyton Hewitt in the quarter-finals.
In the women's singles, Venus Williams, the American defending champion, seeded No 2, is projected to play Amelie Mauresmo, of France, in the quarter-finals and Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion, or Kim Clijsters in the semi-finals.
Jennifer Capriati, in her quest for the third leg of a Grand Slam, is projected to meet Serena Williams in the quarter-finals and Martina Hingis, the world No 1, in the semi-finals.Reuse content