WIMBLEDON, England -- As the tennis world descends on its grandest house, the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club, it's only fitting that the outcome of this Wimbledon be every bit as unknown as any British country house mystery.
Somewhere among the 256 competitors in the men's and women's draws are the 1996 champions. The game's afoot, as one well-known British detective once said. But before this mystery can be solved, many questions must be answered. Three-time defending Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras will open on Centre Court today against Richey Reneberg.
"Mentally I'm fresh and ready to go," Sampras said yesterday. "There is no problem getting motivated for Wimbledon."
But there is a tricky early draw for Sampras, who is trying to become only the sixth man in Wimbledon's 119-year history to win four straight. After Reneberg, who is not a given, could come Mark Philippoussis, who destroyed Sampras in Australia.
Add to that the questions about Sampras' mental state, as he continues to recover from the death of his coach and friend Tim Gullikson, and his physical stamina, given his admission that he "hit the wall" at the French Open two weeks ago and the fact he was upset in a warm-up match here this weekend against No. 18 MaliVai Washington.
Taken all together, is it any wonder that Boris Becker, the man who finished runner-up last year, is the favorite of many? Is Becker the man to beat? He won the Australian Open. He won the Queen's tuneup tournament, and he is in great condition. Could this be the year he recaptures his glory days?
On the women's side, Steffi Graf has been looking like the sure thing -- if there is such a thing at Wimbledon. But the defending champion, who has won four times in the past five years, knows anything can happen here, and yesterday she limped through the second half of an hourlong workout when her knee began acting up. The year Graf didn't win, she made history by becoming the first defending champion not to make it out of the first round. Could it happen again?
Even if it doesn't, could Monica Seles be Graf's worst nightmare? Some have said Seles can't play on grass. But it didn't look that way at Eastbourne on Saturday, when she played sensationally and clubbed Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-0, 6-2.
"People say the grass is not my surface," she said. "But I don't believe that theory. I got very close to winning in 1992. I think I might have had a chance to win, but I was much too worried about my grunting to be able to concentrate. People were making such a fuss over it that all I could think of during that final was that I must not grunt. I'm not saying I would have won . . . I'm just saying that I might have had a better chance.
"And I do think the pressure is more on Steffi here. She has so many personal problems, and I feel better than I have felt for years."
This is Seles' first appearance here since losing to Graf in the 1992 final. Besides answering the grass question, only the unfolding tournament will reveal whether Seles' shoulder will hold up and whether she is fit enough to survive the two-week grind.
If that's not enough mysteries, add a few more to the mix. Will Andre Agassi, the crowd favorite who has been in a malaise since losing to Sampras in the U.S. Open final last September, snap out of it?
British Davis Cup captain John Lloyd said Agassi doesn't appear "to want it" badly enough anymore. Does he or doesn't he?
Will Spanish compatriots Conchita Martinez, the 1994 champ, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, last year's runner-up, have something to say about the women's finals? Does Stefan Edberg have one more great Wimbledon in him?
Embarrassed badly a year ago by his second-round, straight-sets loss to Dick Norman, Edberg has worked hard to make this, his last appearance here, memorable. Reunited with his former coach Tony Pickard, he comes in off impressive play in the French Open and at Queens, making many believe he is still a force. Yet, he opens against Guy Forget today. Will Edberg be gone by nightfall?
Will French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov find the secret so many others have not and have what it takes to put together great performances back-to-back at the French and Wimbledon?
Will the surprising success of England's soccer team, whose upset victories in the European Championships have taken it to the semifinals, have a halo effect on Brits Jeremy Bates, Mark Petchey and Greg Rusedski? That last one might be too easy. After all, Petchey already has set his wedding date for men's semifinal day.
As for the rest, a good mystery isn't solved until the final page is read. This fortnight at Wimbledon could turn out a best-seller.
Today's feature matches
(Seeds in parentheses)
Men: Pete Sampras (1), United States, vs. Richey Reneberg, United States; Jean-Philippe Fleurian, France, vs. Boris Becker (2), Germany; Doug Flach, United States, vs. Andre Agassi (3), United States; Goran Ivanisevic (4), Croatia, vs. Bernd Karbacher, Germany.
Women: Ann Grossman, United States, vs. Monica Seles (2), United States; Conchita Martinez (3), Spain, vs. Silvia Farina, Italy.
When: Today through July 7
Where: All-England Lawn and Tennis Club, Wimbledon, England
Top seeds: Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf
Defending champions: Sampras, Graf
Pub Date: 6/24/96