Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With Sydney's Olympic Games ready to commence next week, let's take a look at the medal candidates in men's and women's tennis.
The United States boasts a powerful women's squad -- dare I call it the Dream Team, but the men's group resembles something more like a nightmare.
The American women are all in the Top-10 on the WTA Tour -- Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Davenport, Seles and Venus will play singles, while Venus and Serena will comprise the formidable doubles tandem.
Davenport, a second-generation Olympian, will be seeking her second consecutive gold medal, as she captured the Games' top prize in Georgia four years ago.
The U.S. men right now are has-been Michael Chang, streaky Todd Martin and silly Jeff Tarango in singles, while Alex O'Brien and Jared Palmer will play doubles. 1996 Olympic gold medalist Andre Agassi pulled out of the Games because of personal reasons. He will likely be replaced by Chris "Country" Woodruff.
The team to beat Down Under on the men's side is the host nation. The strong Aussie contingent is headed up by two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter and feisty teenager Lleyton Hewitt. The Australian group also boasts hard-serving Mark Philippoussis, Andrew Ilie and the "Woodies" -- Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde -- winners of the 1996 doubles gold in Atlanta.
The Russians are only sending two men to Sydney, but they are Top-10ers Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Spain will counter with a solid team -- spearheaded by Alex Corretja. He is joined by Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Fernando Vicente.
And Sweden also possesses a tough squad, highlighted by Thomas Enqvist and Magnus Norman, who are both ranked in the Top-5 in the ATP's Singles Entry System. The other Swedes are Thomas Johansson, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom.
Missing from the American team are Agassi, Pete Sampras and matinee idol Jan-Michael Gambill. Sampras and Gambill turned down invitations to play, as they apparently have better things to do from September 19-28 than win gold for their country.
Agassi and Sampras are not the only world tennis stars opting to miss the Games, as three of the top-eight women will not be on hand -- No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 4 Mary Pierce, who won the 2000 French Open, and No. 8 Nathalie Tauziat, who was left off the French team partly because of a controversial autobiography released back in April.
Also on the women's side, international sex symbol Anna Kournikova of Russia decided against competing in Sydney.
Unlike Sampras, Agassi has played for the red, white and blue (Davis Cup) whenever possible this year, which may have cost him at three of the four 2000 Grand Slam events -- the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
Agassi, who recently disclosed that his mother and sister are both suffering from breast cancer, has taken a slide this season, perhaps the direct result of overworking himself by playing both ATP Tour and Davis Cup tennis. He has not been the same player since a Davis Cup outing against host Zimbabwe in February, when the American had a vomiting exit from the old arena in Harare.
Sampras, meanwhile, has not played as much Davis Cup tennis and went on to claim yet another Wimbledon/Grand Slam title in July.
Thirty-nine countries will be represented in Australia, from Argentina and Armenia to Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe.
The men's field features 15 of the Top-20 players on the ATP Tour. Agassi, Sampras, world No. 2 Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, Cedric Pioline of France and Mariano Puerta of Argentina will not make the trip to Sydney for various reasons.
Twelve of the current Top-20 women have entered the competition. However, the rules for the Olympic women's singles permits only three representatives from any one country. The U.S. has six women in the Top-20, while France boasts five.
Several men will challenge for the gold medal with Agassi and Sampras out of the mix. Swedes Norman and Enqvist, Aussies Rafter and Hewitt, Russians Kafelnikov and Safin, Spain's Corretja, Germany's Nicolas Kiefer, and Britain's Tim Henman, who captured a silver medal in doubles in 1996, are the favorites to vie for medals Down Under.
1992 Olympic gold medalist Marc Rosset of Switzerland will also be in the field.
I expect a strong showing on the men's side from the the hard- hitting Safin, the always-aggressive Enqvist, and the fist-pumping Hewitt.
I'll pick Enqvist for the singles gold, and let's go with the "Woodies" in doubles.
Either Venus Williams, Davenport or Seles should attain gold in the women's singles draw, as I see very little challenge coming from the rest of the field.
France has a nice team in place, with Nathalie Dechy, Julie Halard-Decugis, Amelie Mauresmo and Sandrine Testud; and Spain heads into Sydney with Conchita Martinez, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Magui Serna; but the powerful U.S. women appear to be safe here. Sanchez- Vicario owns four Olympic medals, a silver (1996) and bronze ('92) in singles and a silver ('92) and bronze ('96) in doubles. Her doubles hardware was earned alongside Martinez.
Look for the American ladies to sweep the tennis medals.
Venus and Serena won the doubles at the past three Grand Slam events they entered together -- the 1999 French Open, the '99 U.S. Open and Wimbledon 2000. Venus is also the reigning champion at Wimbledon (beat Davenport); Davenport was the 2000 Australian Open champ; and Serena is the defending champion at the ongoing U.S. Open.
American women have won 5-of-6 gold medals since tennis returned to full-medal Olympic status 12 years ago, following a 64-year hiatus.
The American men will be coached by Stan Smith, while the legendary Billie Jean King will guide the U.S. women.