Agassi to dress the part in return to Wimbledon Self-exile to end as play begins today


WIMBLEDON, England -- The tennis player will wear white.

Forget the decades of tradition, the immaculately maintained grass courts, the Royal Box, the stormy weather, the appearance of defending champions and the disappearance of a top seed. That's all background material.

The big news, win or lose, will be made by an American tennis player with frosted hair, a dangling earring and an 0-3 record in Grand Slam finals. Andre Agassi is back at Wimbledon after a self-imposed exile.

The man who marched onto tennis courts wearing neon green outfits promises to conform with Wimbledon's "predominantly white" clothing regulations as the championships begin today. But what will he wear? Will it be leather, or lace, or simply cotton?

"You'll have to wait to find out," said Agassi, the No. 5 seed, who faces Canadian Grant Connell in the opening round today.

Agassi's first Wimbledon appearance since he was bounced in the opening round of the 1987 tournament practically has dwarfed all other stories.

This is a tournament with an intriguing mix of plot lines from the mysterious withdrawal of top women's seed Monica Seles to the double-digit championship quest of Martina Navratilova to the potential showdown between Boris Becker and defending men's champion Stefan Edberg.

Agassi has avoided Wimbledon while steadily climbing the rankings with victories on hard and clay courts. He excused himself from the sport's premier event, saying he had to bulk up and remake his physique to gain the strength to pound the ball. He also said that the predominantly white clothing regulations of the All England Club would squelch his multihued personality.

"Wimbledon is as important as any other tournament," Agassi said in a news conference last week. "I've just had a hard time, as an American, saying it's the most prestigious one to win. I hope the American public appreciates that thought. I just feel that winning an American tournament is something to be proud of."

Agassi is willing to bow to the royals and sing the praises of Wimbledon.

"I've learned to find good in most things I experience," he said. "And tradition has its place, no question. Wimbledon is not something that's going to inconvenience me. Now, if the whole tour turned to the traditional way, it would be hard for a lot of players. But Wimbledon is Wimbledon, and that says it all. Just going there is a chance in itself, so it's pretty exciting for me."

Agassi comes into this tournament as an underdog, in stark contrast to his past three Grand Slam appearances. Despite being favored to win titles, Agassi has lost in finals at the last two French Opens and the 1990 U.S. Open. His five-set loss to ex-roommate Jim Courier two weeks ago in Paris was crushing. Agassi was teary-eyed as he accepted the runner-up trophy.

"For the first time, I'm going to a tournament where I'm not expected to do a lot, which is nice," Agassi said. "Going into Wimbledon, I'm going to give it my best and hope for the best. Nothing more than that."

Although Courier is the No. 4 seed and Agassi is No. 5, the American with the best chance to win Wimbledon probably is No. 8 Pete Sampras, the 1990 U.S. Open champion. His fluid serve-and-volley style is perfectly matched to the grass.

Three-time champion John McEnroe, in the midst of yet anotheslump, said, "I'm certainly one of the long shots." Ivan Lendl, who craves a Wimbledon title, is recovering from hand surgery and was a second-round loser against Connell at Queens Club.

Edberg, a two-time champion, and Becker, a three-time champion, have met in the past three Wimbledon finals. They are favored to make it four straight.

"Stefan and I have played the best on grass for the past three years, and though you cannot say it will be the same final, we must have the best chance," Becker said.

Graf and defending champion Navratilova are favored to meet in the women's final. Wimbledon officials were forced to redraw the women's brackets Friday after Seles became the first top seed in tournament history to drop out. Seles, halfway to a Grand Slam after victories in the Australian and French opens, sustained an injury reported to be to her knee, arm or shins.

Navratilova said Seles' injury won't radically alter her plans to win a record 10th Wimbledon singles title. All along, she pointed to two-time champion Graf as her greatest threat. In a tuneup final at Eastbourne on Saturday, Navratilova displayed her vintage serve-and-volley game to defeat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in straight sets.

Others who could grab the title from Navratilova include Zina Garrison, a surprise finalist last year, and Gabriela Sabatini, a 1990 semifinalist. Sabatini refashioned her game after her Wimbledon appearance last summer, unveiling an attacking style to defeat Graf in the 1990 U.S. Open final. If Sabatini brings that same combination of fearless shot-making and soaring confidence to Wimbledon, she may emerge as a major force.

But for now, the major story at Wimbledon revolves around a man and his clothes.

Featured matches

Matches at Wimbledon today featuring seeded players:

Centre Court

Stefan Edberg (1), Sweden, vs. Marc Rosset, Switzerland

Andre Agassi (5), Las Vegas, vs. Grant Connell, Canada

Jennifer Capriati (9), Broken Sound, Fla., vs. Shaun Stafford, Gainesville, Fla.

Court 1

Ivan Lendl (3), Czechoslovakia, vs. Kelly Evernden, New Zealand

Court 2

Jim Courier (4), Dade City, Fla., vs. Rodolphe Gilbert, France

Michael Stich (6) Germany, vs. Dan Goldie, Redwood City, Calif.

Helena Sukova (10) Czechoslovakia, vs. Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo.

Court 14

John McEnroe (16), New York, vs. Jaime Oncins, Brazil

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