Sampras Ready to Defend Wimbledon Title

WIMBLEDON, England -- The most famous stadium in tennis was quiet as a cathedral, the stands empty, the scoreboards blank, the first match days away.

Pete Sampras stood in the shadows and admired the setting. The Wimbledon king and his court share a special bond.

"I just love the place," he said.

A visit to Center Court is part of Sampras' annual ritual leading up to Wimbledon, and there's no reason to alter the routine. He has won his sport's most prestigious event six of the past seven years, and he opens the tournament Monday against Czech Jiri Vanek seeded No. 1 for the fifth year in a row.

Wimbledon's lush lawn always seems to lift Sampras out of his perennial post-French Open funk. So it matters not that he lost in the first round at Paris last month, or that he has won only a single tournament this year or that he has been stalled at a record-tying 12 Grand Slam titles since winning Wimbledon in 1999.

He's the consensus choice to win again, and he embraces the role.

"It's going to take someone who is playing very well to beat me," he said.

Sampras lists at least six rivals as potential champions: second-seeded Andre Agassi of the United States, big-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek, Australians Mark Philippoussis and Lleyton Hewitt and Britons Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

The group owns a combined two Wimbledon titles f by Agassi in 1992, and by Krajicek in 1996. Sampras' six titles are the most won by any man in the 20th century, and he's 46-1 at the All England Club over the past seven years, with the lone loss to Krajicek.

"Definitely he's the man to beat," Krajicek said. "When he gets on the grass, he's unbelievable."

Sampras' serve-and-volley game is ideally suited to the fast surface. But he also wins at Wimbledon because grasscourt matches often come down to just a few pivotal points, and Sampras is at his best under pressure.

He regards his most recent match at Wimbledon as probably the best he ever played anywhere, particular given the stakes and the caliber of opposition.

Agassi lost to Sampras in straight sets in the 1999 final. That was Agassi's lone defeat during a span of four Grand Slam tournaments that concluded with his Australian Open title in January.

A subsequent series of ailments and dismal losses suggest Agassi may now be mired in one of those lengthy slumps that have plagued his career.

"It's tough staying on top, as we know," Sampras said. "But I don't see him going through any skid. I'm sure he'll be a threat."

While Agassi's health and confidence are in question, Sampras declares himself fit and in a fine frame of mind. He recently became engaged to actress Bridgette Wilson, he's feeling like a winner.

Sampras admits that Wimbledon is his best chance to break the record of 12 Grand Slam titles he shares with Australia' Roy Emerson. But he denies any sense of urgency.

"It's not like I feel any pressure. I look at it as an opportunity," he said. "Wimbledon is a place where I do pretty well, but I'd love to do it anywhere. If it's not here, then maybe at the U.S. Open in a couple of months."

And if not this year, maybe next year. Sampras turns 29 in August, but says he plans to play another four or five years.

But Wimbledon hasn't always been his favorite tournament. As a youngster, Sampras figured his game would adapt quickly to grass. But his first Grand Slam title came at 19 in the 1990 U.S. Open, while he won only one match in his first three years at Wimbledon.

"I always felt as a kid I would love playing on grass, and it actually ended up different," he said. "When I came over to Wimbledon as a teenager, I didn't like the surface. I couldn't really return that well. I didn't like the bad bounces. I really had a pessimistic attitude on grass."

His attitude changed in 1992, thanks to tutoring from his coach, the late Tim Gullikson. Sampras reached the quarterfinals that year, then won his first Wimbledon title in 1993, beating Jim Courier in the final.

That day, at 21, Sampras held the championship trophy for the first time, shook hands with royalty and basked in applause while the world watched. Center Court has been his home turf ever since.