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Having A New Ball Agassi, Sampras Among Wimbledon Field Adjusting To Softer Tennis Balls

Andre Agassi piloted his plane from Las Vegas to San Francisco, hopped a red-eye to London, donned tennis whites and dashed out to Wimbledon, looking fresh and healthy as ever.

There was no time to waste on anything so mundane as sleep, especially on such a gorgeous, sunny afternoon when the lawns of the AllEngland Club were as perfect as they will ever be. Once the tournament begins Monday, the grass will take a beating and start turning brown. For the moment, four days to go, they gleamed pristine green and felt lush to the touch.

Agassi had reserved a practice court from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and at exactly 4:59 p.m. a punctual worker showed up to take down the net the second the hour tolled. Rules and all that, you know, even for the No. 1 seed and 1992 champion.

But Agassi, determined to end Pete Sampras’ two-year reign at Wimbledon, wanted to keep playing, and he made a pleading motion for more time, like a kid begging his parents for a few more minutes at the playground.

Two weeks earlier, a hip muscle strain led to Agassi’s defeat in the French Open quarterfinals, and he spent the next 10 days undergoing treatment. On court now with South Africa’s Marcos Ondruska, Agassi couldn’t believe they were being booted off.

Not to worry, though. With the help of his crafty coach, Brad Gilbert, who wheedled the worker into checking back with the referee’s office, Agassi got in another 20 minutes of practice and pronounced himself fit to challenge for the title again.

“Wimbledon is what I call shotmaking tennis,” Agassi said. “You don’t see long rallies. You see spectacular shots. You can go possibly two matches without seeing one, then sometimes you can catch 20 of them in the span of five or six games. That’s what makes it very unpredictable. You have to be sharp mentally, you have to be alert physically, and you’ve got to make sure you’re ready to come up with big plays.

“It always seems you win points you thought you were going to lose, and you lose points sometimes you thought for sure you were going to win. It suits my style of play. I like going for targets. I’ve performed well here in the past, and it’s certainly exciting to be back.”

Agassi’s eyes widened and a broad smile brightened his face, as if he knew something no one else did.

“Five to one,” he said of the odds on him at London bookmakers. “I like that bet.”

Sampras, seeded No. 2, is the oddson favorite, at 10-11, to become the first American man to win three straight Wimbledon titles. Steffi Graf, despite a sore right wrist that sent her back to Germany for treatment, is 8-15 to regain the women’s title from Conchita Martinez.

After suffering through a difficult first half of the year, dealing with coach Tim Gullikson’s battle with brain cancer and getting knocked out of the first round of the French, Sampras would like nothing more than to notch another Wimbledon championship - for himself and for Gullikson.

It is not so farfetched to imagine that Agassi and Sampras will meet in the final for the fourth time this year.

By tinkering with the tennis balls in a dubious effort to prolong rallies, Wimbledon helped Agassi and Sampras in different ways. At the same time, the heavier and slower new balls will hurt the chances of many other players who don’t have Agassi’s returning prowess or Sampras’ serving power.

“The balls will help strong servers who are versatile, who can hit through the pace of the court, like a Sampras or a (Boris) Becker or a Goran (Ivanisevic),” Agassi said. “You take smaller, more consistent players who depend on sneaking in a few first serves every now and then - all of a sudden 5 mph comes off their first serve.

“But the balls help the returner, somebody who likes hitting good returns, good passing shots. The ball behaves a lot more. You can get it low a little easier, a little heavier. But the bottom line is I think the heavier balls actually hurt the smaller guys more. You take 5 mph away from Pete, he’s still serving 115. You take 5 mph away from me, and I’m serving 103.”

Sampras won the tuneup tournament at Queen’s Club using the new balls, and he agreed with Agassi’s assessment.

“I agree with him 100 percent on both things he said,” Sampras said. “It does give the returner a litle bit more time to hit because the serves aren’t coming in quite as fast as last year.”

Serves and returns aside, the new balls will not guarantee longer rallies. The nature of grass courts virtually assures quick points, aces and service winners.

“Instead of messing with the balls, they should allow coaching after each set,” Agassi said. “That would add a big element to the game, to see adjustments to strategies. If you had a timeout and you came back after a little coaching, you’d see a dramatic difference in the game plan. I think that’s a higher priority than slowing down a serve. I proved here in ‘92 that (a baseliner) can still win on this surface with fast serves. (Michael) Chang’s proved that small guys can serve big if they work on it. I don’t think this is an issue.”

Just as Agassi and Sampras have diametrically opposed styles on court, so too are there approaches to preparing for Wimbledon.

Agassi arrived for his first practice Thursday, two weeks after Sampras came here to get used to the grass. Sampras, who desperately wanted to win the French for the first time, played so much on clay leading up to it that he felt he had lost some of the aggressiveness he needs to win on grass. He regained that with his performance at Queen’s, winning singles and doubles titles.

“The best thing that I know is to get as much grass court time as you can, playing singles and doubles, getting there early like I did and just seeing the ball,” Sampras said. “It is not like a surface that you have to work on your stamina. It is pretty much explosive stuff. I just get on there as much as possible.”

Agassi, on the other hand, likes to stay away from the grass as long as possible. He didn’t play on grass before winning Wimbledon three years ago, and he’s convinced that strategy is best for him.

“I think the more you play on grass, the worse you get,” Agassi said. “The bounces aren’t as clean, so you have to adjust your strokes constantly. You shorten up your strokes. You’re flicking at the ball at the last second, and it breaks down your good fundamentals.

Tags: tennis