Wimbledon is braced for Agassi


LONDON -- Wimbledon begins today. And all eyes will be searching for one person: Andre Agassi.

Agassi isn't among the betting favorites. (Yes, touts produce odds and people here bet on Wimbledon.) On the men's side, those would be top-seeded Stefan Edberg, the defending champion, and second-seeded Boris Becker, a three-time champion. On the women's side, there are third-seeded Martina Navratilova, the winner of her ninth Wimbledon title last year; top-seeded Steffi Graf, a two-time champ; and second-seeded Gabriela Sabatini.

No eyes will be on Monica Seles. Until Friday, Seles was the women's No. 1 seed, a player halfway to sweeping this year's four Grand Slam tournaments. But Friday, with only a mysteriously terse faxed statement citing a minor injury, Seles, who had already won the Australian and French opens, withdrew.

That prompted a host of rumors. Had she withdrawn because of the shin splints that had bothered her at the French Open two weeks earlier? Did she have a knee injury? That's what was reported in a Yugoslavian newspaper that said it had spoken to her, although even Wimbledon officials had had no luck reaching Seles or her agents. Did she have muscle problems in her legs? Another Yugoslavian daily quoted Seles' father as saying his daughter could also miss the U.S. Open, which starts in late August, because of "chronic inflammation of the muscles of both legs." Was her withdrawal the result of a bad mood? That was the rumor in London's tabloids.

Many eyes will be on Jimmy Connors. Connors, 38, a wild-card entry, will begin play in his 19th Wimbledon against Veli Paloheimo, a pleasant Finn who may be booed if he knocks out the sentimental favor

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But it is Agassi, a 21-year-old American with no Grand Slam titles to his credit, who has created a sensation here. And he has created that sensation mainly by staying away.

Agassi last appeared on the grass of Wimbledon in 1987, when he lost in straight sets in the first round to Henri Leconte. Thoroughly embarrassed, he hadn't returned since. Until his arrival Thursday.

It was a penitent Agassi who returned, too. For the past three years, he had talked about how the French and U.S. Open meant more to him, about how -- tradition be darned -- it was more important for him to rest after the European clay-court season than to play Wimbledon.

But after his loss to fellow American Jim Courier in the French Open final two weeks ago -- it was the second year in a row that he had been upset in that final -- a chastened, teary-eyed Agassi spoke about returning to Wimbledon at last.

"Tradition has become important to me," he said. "I realize how special Wimbledon is. I'm really looking forward to playing there."

Another excuse that Agassi had used to stay away from the staid All England Club was its rule that players had to wear all-white outfits. Agassi, who wore a ponytail for the semifinals of the French Open, favors colorful outfits that seemingly would glow in the dark. In Paris, he favored mottled black, gray and purple swirls. It remains to be seen how Agassi, who often can be seen saying "image is everything," will jazz up the color white.

"Everyone's been waiting for four years," Agassi said in Paris. "They can wait two more weeks."

The wait will be over today.

After, as tradition dictates, the defending men's champion -- Edberg -- kicks off play on Centre Court, meeting Marc Rosset of Switzerland, Agassi will step onto that hallowed ground to play Grant Connell, a Canadian whose main success has come in doubles.

But there are the questions of how Agassi, the No. 5 seed, will respond after his devastating loss to Courier and of how he will deal with the odd bounces and the pace of play on Wimbledon's slick grass.

After the French Open, instead of heading right to England to play in tournaments that serve as grasscourt tuneups for Wimbledon, Agassi headed back to the United States to lick his latest wounds. Though he had reached the finals of the last three Grand Slam tournaments he had played, he had lost each time to a lower-ranked player, bowing to Andres Gomez last year in the French Open, Pete Sampras last year in the U.S. Open and, finally, Courier.

Agassi practiced with former touring pro Brian Gottfried on the grass courts of the Association of Tennis Professionals' practice center in Ponte Vedra, Fla. But, as no less an expert than Becker said, "it takes a long time to learn about the grass at Wimbledon. It's hard to do that in Florida."

Becker, though, is one of the few who gives Agassi much chance at Wimbledon.

"I think we're all going to be surprised by how well Andre's going to

play," Becker said. "I think he has a game that is pretty well suited for grass. He has good returns, takes the ball early and serves well."

Other than Becker and Edberg, third-seeded Ivan Lendl and two big-serving 19-year-olds -- eighth-seeded Sampras and 10th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic -- are generally given the best chances of getting to the men's final, where Edberg and Becker have met for the past three years.

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