Turf Wars: A Wimbledon preview

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The tradition continues on Monday, as Wimbledon will get underway at the venerable All England Club, with Lleyton Hewitt and Serena Williams as your defending champions.

Will Hewitt and Serena repeat at SW19? Only time will tell over the next 2 1/2 weeks, but the gritty stars could have the inside track at repeat performances.

Hewitt is a two-time Grand Slam event titlist, with his greatest victories coming at the 2001 U.S. Open and last year's "Wimby" extravaganza when he beat a completely overmatched David Nalbandian in a disappointing final.

Serena, on the other hand, is a five-time major champion, having won four of the last five Slams, as well as the 1999 U.S. Open. Serena had her Grand Slam streak broken by little Justine Henin-Hardenne in this month's French Open semis, as the American superstar had won four straight majors and 33 consecutive Grand Slam matches before the Belgian stepped in.

The world No. 1 Serena, of course, won four of the last five Slams by besting her big sister Venus in the finals, and Venus is no slouch at the majors, having won four of 'em (the 2000 and 2001 Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles).

Serena Williams
Serena Williams had her Grand Slam streak broken by little Justine Henin-Hardenne in this month's French Open semis.

The top-seeded Serena and fourth-seeded Venus are in opposite halves of the draw, which means they could meet in yet another Grand Slam final. Is this really what we want? Their head-to-head battles don't typically produce great tennis, as we all know.

Back to the men.

Hewitt, just as he did at this year's Aussie and French Opens, will have his hands full with a loaded field. The fiery star failed to get past the fourth round in the season's first two Slams, suffering a fourth-round loss against big-serving Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui in Melbourne and a third-round setback versus rising Spaniard Tommy Robredo at Roland Garros.

The speedy Aussie, however, is the reigning Wimbledon champ, as he became the first baseliner since Andre Agassi in 1992 to capture the undisputed king of tennis tournaments.

I expect the Australian Open champion Agassi, Tim Henman, Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedski and Marat Safin to pose the biggest threats to Hewitt's reign. Hewitt dodged a bullet when 1996 Wimbledon champ Richard Krajicek pulled out this week, citing an elbow injury. Krajicek, a surprise quarterfinalist last year, could have been a potential second-round opponent for the current champ.

Agassi is a former Wimbledon champion and currently stands as the world's No. 1 star, after supplanting Hewitt atop the ATP rankings this week. Agassi is a stellar 11-1 at the majors this year, with his only loss coming against Argentine dirt-baller Guillermo Coria in the French Open quarters.

The 33-year-old Agassi, the oldest man to ever hold the world No. 1 ranking, could meet Hewitt in a marquee baseline-tennis final, and such a final is quite possible on the slower rye grass at the storied AEC.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi is a former Wimbledon champion and currently stands as the world's No. 1 star, after supplanting Lleyton Hewitt atop the ATP rankings this week.

Henman is perhaps the best remaining serve-and-volley performer on the planet (if you don't include the quasi-retired Sampras). "Our Tim" has reached the Wimbledon semis four out of the last five years, and will try to give England its first male Brit finalist in 65 years (Bunny Austin in 1938). Can Henman overcome that type of pressure in front of the home faithful? I doubt it.

Look out for Roddick. His lethal serve is a virtually-unstoppable weapon on the grass, as evidenced by his 149-mile-per-hour launch at last week's Wimby tune-up at Queen's Club, where the young American captured his first-ever grass-court title and beat his fellow American Agassi en route to his Stella Artois plaudits.

The 20-year-old Roddick is now employing former Agassi coach Brad Gilbert as his mentor and is 1-0 in tournaments under Gilbert's tutelage.

Roddick sailed all the way to the Aussie Open semis five months ago, but suffered a stunning first-round loss against journeyman Sargis Sargsian at the French, prompting him to fire his now former coach Tarik Benhabiles.

The fragile Roddick also has a knack for getting injured, so he'll obviously need to avoid that in order to run the table.

Danger also lurks for Hewitt from the likes of Rusedski and Safin. Rusedski is a clever grass-courter who's currently relocating his game after being sidelined by injuries for almost six months. He's one of the few guys who can actually match Roddick serve-for-serve, as only Rusedski and Roddick have been clocked at 149 miles per hour during an ATP match.

The oft-injured/flaky Safin could be a darkhorse pick at Wimbledon. When the big Russian's "on" he's unbeatable. But he hasn't been "on" this entire season, one in which he's 12-6 with nary a championship. He bowed out in the third round in Melbourne and skipped the French Open due to injury. Safin is always dangerous, but he usually succumbs to the pressure in the late rounds of the Slams, with the exception of the 2000 U.S. Open when he destroyed Sampras in the final.

Safin lost to tiny Belgian Olivier Rochus in the second round at last year's edition of Wimbledon, and is most certainly a hard one to figure out.

Did I forget to mention French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero or silky- smooth Swiss Roger Federer? I don't think so.

Ferrero is not at his best on grass, as evidenced by his 3-2 career mark at Wimbledon, while the "Fed" just refuses to step it up at the Slams, as evidenced by his recent first-round loss against Luis Horna (who?) at the French Open and his bevy of opening-round setbacks at Wimbledon, including last year's stunner against Mario Ancic. Federer reached the Wimby quarters in 2001, but his other three trips have resulted in first-round exits.

Go figure.

Back to the women.

I think Serena can expect a stiff challenge from four women at the "Big W" -- the French Open champion Henin-Hardenne, French Open runner-up Kim Clijsters, former Wimbledon winner Lindsay Davenport, and Venus.

If Serena can stay within herself (recently rattled by a hostile French Open crowd), she'll repeat early next month.

Note: Serena hasn't titled anywhere since the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami back in March. She's only lost three matches since then, but two of 'em came against Henin-Hardenne (at a final in Charleston and the semis in Paris), while her other setback came against French star Amelie Mauresmo in a semifinal bout in Rome.

The red-hot Henin-Hardenne is a perfect 2-0 against Serena this year and has won 14 straight and 22 of her last 23 matches overall. The Belgian star was a Wimbledon finalist in 2001, but lost to Venus, who also topped her in last year's semis.

The world No. 2 Clijsters should be primed for her Grand Slam breakthrough.

Is she?

Clijsters was my pick to title at Roland Garros, but came up small in the historic all-Belgian final against her "good friend" Henin-Hardenne.

Davenport is trying to get her once-formidable game together and is probably at her best on the grass, where her powerful, flat strokes are at their most lethal. She's a two-time Wimbledon finalist and captured the event in 1999 by topping the legendary Steffi Graf in the title match.

Venus is seeking her first Grand Slam title since the 2001 U.S. Open and appears to have her best shot on grass. If she serves at her best and plays with desire, Venus can prevail at Wimbledon, again.

Did I overlook Jennifer Capriati or Mauresmo? Of course not. Capriati hasn't titled in 17 months and Mauresmo usually finds some way to choke at the Slams, despite reaching Wimbledon and U.S. Open semifinals last year.

I'm pickin' the eight-time Grand Slam event champion Agassi to prevail among the men, and I like Serena to rebound and repeat among the women. If Agassi slips up at all, it could be Hewitt or Roddick, while a Serena misfire could lead to hardware for...you guessed it, Venus.

Scott Riley
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