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Will Sampras regain his form at the Big W?

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The grandest of the Slams will get underway in less than a week, and for the first time in almost a decade the great Pete Sampras will not be the favorite at Wimbledon.

The 30-year-old Sampras will head to the All England Club with his lowest seeding (6) since 1991, and when the experts talk about the potential new men's champion, the seven-time Wimbledon winner isn't on too many lists.

The all-time Grand Slam tournament king is still seeking his first title of any kind since capturing a fourth straight Wimbledon championship in 2000. Last year, the legendary star was knocked out in the fourth round by talented Swiss Roger Federer, who some are picking to capture the 2002 edition of the world's premier grass-court event.

Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras hasn't titled since winning a fourth straight and seventh overall Wimbledon crown in 2000.
Sampras will open his '02 fortnight against English crowd favorite Martin Lee, and could possibly face long-time rival Andre Agassi in the semifinals.

I believe Agassi is among the serious contenders, along with big Russian Marat Safin, the aforementioned Federer, Tim Henman, and world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. The consensus right now seems to be leaning towards the reigning U.S. Open champion Hewitt, and even Henman, but Safin is always dangerous and the seven- time "major" titlist Agassi has won Wimbledon before and was the runner-up as recently as 1999 (Sampras).

The current ATP Champions Race-leading Safin was January's Australian Open runner-up to Thomas Johansson and captured the U.S. Open in 2000 by routing Sampras in the final. Could a second major be in the offing?

Henman will be the sentimental pick to run the table at SW19, but the nerve- challenged star has yet to advance to a Slam final in 10 years on the circuit.

The 27-year-old Henman was last week's Stella Artois Championships runner-up to Hewitt for the second time in as many years. And if Henman wants to get past Hewitt at Wimbledon, he'd have to beat the tenacious star in the semis.

Hewitt is a flawless 5-0 lifetime against Henman, including 2-0 this year.

Darkhorses on the men's side include huge-serving American teenager Andy Roddick and two-time Grand Slam event winner Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is fresh off his grass court title at the Wimbledon tune-up tourney in Halle.

One thing we know for sure is that there will be a new champion among the men, as 2001 finalists Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter are skipping the 2002 edition. The reigning champion and three-time runner-up Ivanisevic is sidelined with a bad shoulder, while the reigning two-time runner-up Rafter is enjoying his self-imposed semi-retirement.

French Open champion Albert Costa will also avoid the All England Club, as the newlywed continues to honeymoon after whipping fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Roland Garros final two weeks ago.

I'm pickin' the 21-year-old Hewitt to hoist the coveted trophy for the first time. And if he does, he'd be the first Aussie to do so since Pat Cash in 1987.

Hewitt, who plays a predominantly baseline style of tennis, would not be your typical Wimbledon grass-court stalwart, as the fastest of all surfaces usually favors serve-and-volley performers, such as recent champions like Sampras, Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek. But formidable baseliners such as Agassi and the legendary Bjorn Borg have enjoyed success at the storied event.

Keep in mind, however, that Hewitt has never advanced beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon. He'll open his fortnight against dangerous Swede Jonas Bjorkman.

Sampras (1993-95, 1997-2000), Krajicek (1996) and Agassi (1992) are the only former champions in the men's draw.

On the women's side, I think it's a three-horse race between the incredible Williams sisters -- Venus and Serena -- and Australian Open champion Jennifer Capriati.

Capriati claimed her second straight Aussie Open title back in January by stopping former world No. 1 Martina Hingis for the second straight year in Melbourne, but it's the French Open champion Serena and the current world No. 1 Venus who will be the players to beat at the AEC.

Venus Williams
Venus Williams poses with the ladies' trophy after claiming her second straight Wimbledon title last year.
Venus has won four of the last eight majors, having claimed back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships, while the scalding-hot Serena is currently enjoying a career-high world No. 2 ranking thanks in part to her big victory over her big sister in this month's French Open title match. The win gave Serena a second Slam event title, to go along with her 1999 U.S. Open crown.

The 22-year-old Venus and 20-year-old Serena lead the WTA Tour with four titles apiece this season, while Capriati has failed to hoist any hardware since her Aussie Open run five months ago. Serena is a dominant 4-0 against Capriati this season and has won five straight in their all-time series since losing to her compatriot in last year's Wimbledon quarters.

Before Serena slammed Venus at Roland Garros, Capriati and Venus had combined to win the last seven Grand Slam tournaments.

Serena and Capriati could meet in the semifinals in two weeks.

Venus will open defense of her title against British wild card Jane O'Donoghue, while Serena will meet Aussie Evie Dominikovic and Capriati will take on Slovakian Janette Husarova.

The powerful American women could be challenged by Belgian stars Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, but I wouldn't hold my breath, especially after seeing the Belgians struggle at the most-recent Slam, in Paris.

Henin was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Venus, who was pushed to three sets in the encounter, but ultimately cruised at love in the third.

The darkhorses among the ladies are nine-time major champion Monica Seles and rapidly-rising Yugoslavian Jelena Dokic, who is still seeking that "breakthrough" victory. Could it come at Wimbledon 2002?

We'll see.

The only Slam trophy missing from Seles' case is the Wimbledon platter, but does the aging star have the game and stamina to hang with the biggest of girls (Venus, Serena and Jennifer)? Seles hasn't captured a major championship since nailing down her fourth Aussie Open title in 1996, and she hasn't advanced to a Slam final since the '98 French.

A darkhorse indeed, despite being a fourth seed.

Former champions Hingis (foot) and Lindsay Davenport (knee) will not be on hand this year, as both players continue to recover from surgeries. The only other former champion in the ladies' field besides Venus is fading Spaniard Conchita Martinez (1994).

Serena and Venus are in opposite halves of the draw, which means they could only meet in yet another all-sibling final. Venus won the first-ever all- Williams Grand Slam championship match at last year's U.S. Open.

I'm pickin' Serena to continue her torrid pace and end her big sister's reign (or is it rain) at Wimbledon.

Bring on the strawberries and cream!

Scott Riley
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