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Weather Or Tennis On Deck Rains May Keep Wimbledon At Bay

Mon., June 23, 1997

This could be the year that Wimbledon, which has already tampered with tradition by ripping up Court One and installing a spanking new stadium nearby, may regret its steadfast decision to use the sky as its roof, because this roof has lately sprung some spectacular leaks.

Torrential rainstorms wreaked havoc on the Wimbledon qualifying events this weekend, actually driving them indoors to hardcourts, and forcing most practice sessions indoors as well.

With no time left to install a tent over Wimbledon’s well-irrigated lawns, tournament officials were praying for a break in the clouds for opening day on Monday, and tournament contenders were wondering when, or if, the ultimate test of their grass-court prowess would begin. And wondering whether it is possible to play on grass - a surface that demands a quick eye, quick hands, and a forgiving temperament - by memory.

“The good part about it is we’re all sort of in the same boat, and nobody’s gotten the time to get used to the grass that they might have liked to have,” said top-seeded Pete Sampras, a three-time Wimbledon champion whose 55-13 record on grass is second to that of eighth-seeded Boris Becker, another three-time Wimbledon champion and the owner of a 108-21 grass-court record that qualifies him as the grand old man of this surface.

That is why Sampras and Becker, 29, who said this Wimbledon would be his last if he sustained the same sort of wrist injury that sidelined him for five months last year, are the favorites to collect a fourth title. The cruel thing is that one will knock out the other in the quarterfinal round should they both get that far.

Last year, Becker snapped a wrist tendon in the third round and Sampras, intent on winning his fourth straight Wimbledon title, was stopped in his tracks in the quarterfinal round by Richard Krajicek, the Dutchman with the dagger serve who went on to claim the title by defeating MaliVai Washington.

That the final between two relative nobodies on the Grand Slam scene was prefaced by a surprising Center Court sprint by a female streaker seemed almost appropriate. After all, no one had expected to see Krajicek or Washington on Center Court on the prestigious final Sunday, either.

“You look at Krajicek last year at Wimbledon - he kind of came out of nowhere, and before he knew it he’d won the tournament,” Sampras said. “I mean, everyone who can serve real big I think you are kind of on edge to play, and the way the game is today, anything’s possible. The favorites aren’t as favored as they probably were 10 years ago.”

Krajicek, seeded fourth this year after sneaking into last year’s seeding slots only by virtue of several cancellations by players ranked ahead of him, has a sense that more surprises could be in store this year. Reflecting on the French Open victory of Brazil’s unseeded Gustavo Kuerten earlier this month, along with the emergence of an unseeded Australian Open finalist in Spain’s Carlos Moya, who is 10th-seeded here, Krajicek said that major breakthroughs at Grand Slam events seem to be becoming a trend.

“In a way, you can almost say that players our days have less and less respect for the better players, and they are less afraid of beating them, basically,” Krajicek said.

Now that Krajicek is a defending Wimbledon champion rather than just another fashioner of upsets (besides Sampras, he also defeated former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich last year), he knows he is vulnerable to the trend.

“I think that the later you start worrying about being the defending champion and coming out at 2 o’clock on Monday, the better it is,” said Krajicek, who won his final grass tune-up at Rosmalen, the Netherlands, Sunday and faces a Grand Slam neophyte, Germany’s Marcello Craca, in the first round here today.

Steffi Graf will not have the luxury of feeling the pressure of defending her seventh title here because, for the first time in more than a decade, she is not here. Sidelined by extensive knee surgery, Graf has left the door open for top-ranked Martina Hingis to make amends for her runner-up finish to Croatia’s Iva Majoli at the French Open. Hingis was a doubles champion here last year at 15 and the century’s youngest winner of a Grand Slam event at 16 at this year’s Australian Open.

Hingis played the French Open after a six-week layoff for arthroscopic knee surgery and insisted she was delighted even to reach the semifinals at Paris. But she indicated it would be business as usual at Wimbledon. “I’m going there to win,” said Hingis, who skipped the rain-plagued Wimbledon warmup events and practiced in private.

Hingis probably considers her top rivals for this title to be third-seeded Jana Novotna, whose game is tailored for grass, and eighth-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who overcame her “grass is for cows” theory and reached the final in 1995 and 1996. But second-seeded Monica Seles, a finalist in 1992, is also anxious to take advantage of Graf’s absence and capture the only Grand Slam crown that has been beyond her grasp.

But Seles, never as ferocious on grass as she is elsewhere, has been underwhelmed by her level of play over the past month and admitted she will not win Wimbledon unless she toughens up.

“I think it’s going to be more open without Graf there, and anyone can win it, but I also think I’m putting more pressure on myself because I haven’t won it,” said Seles, who also admitted she misses the moral support of her father and coach, Karolj, who is home in Florida battling cancer.

Two contenders who are not putting pressure on themselves to win the title are the two new French Open champions, Kuerten and Majoli. Neither of them has won a match here and Kuerten has not even played Wimbledon before. Then again, before he seized his first title at a Grand Slam event two weeks ago, Kuerten, who faces New Jersey’s 119th-ranked Justin Gimelstob today, had not yet passed the quarterfinals of any tour event.

Fourth-seeded Majoli announced she would be relieved merely to pass Wimbledon’s first round after two fruitless visits. “My dream is to win first round,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to die on the court at Wimbledon just to win that first round.’ “

MEMO: Wimbledon Play begins today, weather permitting, and concludes Sunday, July 6.

Wimbledon Play begins today, weather permitting, and concludes Sunday, July 6.

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