Sampras scare clouds first day at Wimbledon

John Roberts
Monday 24 June 2002 00:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Instead of opening the 116th Wimbledon Championships at 1pm on Centre Court this afternoon, Pete Sampras will be nursing a back injury in the hope of being fit to play his first round match against Martin Lee, the British No 3, before the day is over.

In the absence of last year's champion, Goran Ivanisevic, and also the runner-up, Pat Rafter, the All England Club decided that the 30-year-old Sampras would best serve the Centre Court tradition, having won the last of his seven Wimbledon singles titles in 2000.

On Saturday, however, Sampras, the sixth seed, felt a "tweak" in the right lower ribs while stretching on a training table before he was due to play Stefan Koubek, of Austria, in the Boodle and Dunthorne exhibition tournament at Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire. Sampras, who had played the Australian Todd Woodbridge at Stoke Park 48 hours earlier, withdrew from the Koubek match and consulted a doctor about the injury yesterday. He will know the results of a scan this morning.

Alan Mills, the Wimbledon referee, said last night: "As a result of sustaining an acute strain in the right lower ribs on Saturday, Pete Sampras requested a Tuesday start. Since we had already determined his half of the draw would play on Monday, we were unable to grant this particular request. However, as is the case with all players who ask for a late start, we were able to help him by putting him on third match Monday." Andre Agassi, the 32-year-old No 3 seed, who won the men's singles title in 1992, is scheduled to open play on Centre Court against Israel's Harel Levy. They will be followed by Serena Williams, the French Open champion and No 2 seed, taking on the Australian Evie Dominikova.

All being well, Sampras will then go on court to play Lee, a left-hander from London ranked No 98 in the world. Sampras's coach, Jose Higueras, said he did not view the injury as a serious problem, adding that Sampras rode an exercise bike yesterday without too much discomfort.

A stressful weekend was the last thing Sampras needed coming into his favourite tournament. He was already short of match practice and confidence, having been unable to win a title anywhere since defeating Rafter in the Wimbledon final two years ago. Sampras showed admirable forbearance in winning the 2000 Championships; his record 13th Grand Slam title. He struggled with tendinitis of the left shin and foot from the second round to the end of the tournament, and practised only once. The previous year, Sampras withdrew from the United States Open after herniating a disc while practising the day before the start of the tournament. Until Saturday's mishap, it would have been tempting to predict a final between Tim Henman and Sampras, with the fourth seed from Oxfordshire avenging semi-final defeats by Sampras in 1998 and 1999. In the circumstances, however, it is difficult to imagine the Californian negotiating six best-of-five-sets matches to get to the final Sunday.

A strong feeling persists that Henman, who was defeated in his third semi-final by Ivanisevic last year, is about to end a 66-year wait for a Briton to win the Wimbledon men's singles title since Fred Perry completed his hat-trick in 1936.

Admittedly, we have been down this road several times before. This time, however, two factors are likely to strengthen the 27-year-old's challenge. The first is his belief that his game has shown greater improvement in the past 12 months than in any previous year. The second is related to the work Henman put in during the two and a half months on the slow clay courts of Europe.

The clay court tournaments leading up to, and including, the French Open in Paris represent the segment of the season most difficult for Henman, with his natural attacking style. In the past, Henman has tended to regard his weeks on clay as a chore, albeit without the pressure to do well. This year, Henman approached the clay with an impressive balance of patience and aggression. Although he had his share of disappointments, he was rewarded by a place in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Open. Those weeks ought to have strengthened his legs and his resolve without dulling his edge when serve-volleying on the lawns of SW19.

Henman will expect to be tested in every match, not least if he advances to play Sweden's Thomas Johansson in the quarter-finals. By then, Lleyton Hewitt, the world No 1, a Henman bogeyman, may be duelling with Roger Federer, a Swiss Wimbledon champion in the making. Should Henman progress and play either Hewitt or Federer in the semi-finals, the Briton's Wimbledon experience may be the deciding factor.

So who, if not Sampras, is likely to emerge from the lower half of the draw? Agassi will be the favourite, but, if we are looking for another wild-card surprise, Mark Philippoussis has the game. And so does Andy Roddick, the 14th seed, and Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, seeded No 23. Any one of those four may play Marat Safin, Todd Martin, or perhaps the big-serving Max Mirnyi in the semi-finals.

Rusedski, unlike Henman, barely set foot on the clay, but he seems healthy and eager. When his mighty serve is working, he is nobody's idea of a soft touch. It might be stretching fantasy too far, but a Henman-Rusedski final would be a winner.

While indulging in wishful thinking, why not also tip Anna Kournikova to celebrate her first tournament triumph? No, the name of the women's singles winner probably will be Williams: Venus or Serena, and indubitably their father, Richard. Only Jennifer Capriati looks powerful enough to split the siblings.

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