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Drama level low entering Wimbledon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON - This year's Wimbledon, summed up: Roger Federer, gentleman and top-shelf role model, is a clear favorite to win his third consecutive championship, and the bookies are betting on the very grounded and exceptionally inoffensive Maria Sharapova to capture her second straight women's title.

That's pretty much it.

And that could be a problem for the British tabloids because, contrary to the belief of many people, the papers prefer to energetically embellish stories rather than create them outright.

This year, though, the tabloids have little to work with. The tournament is all but void of personal drama to hype, is absent even careless remarks that the tabloids can twist into scandal.

"I'd say that you can count on great tennis this year, but there aren't any really great stories that come to mind," said Ron Atkin, a sportswriter for the non-tabloid Independent on Sunday, who has covered Wimbledon for 30 years. "On the other hand, don't underestimate the creativity of some of these papers. They'll find something to jump on."

The tabloids here cover the actual tennis, sure. And thoroughly. But an essential function of the British tabloids - Wimbledon not excepted - is to create sideshows: the deification of chosen players, the villification of others, the personal dramas most often based on a "tragedy" so unbearably painful that absolutely nothing - except maybe a Wimbledon championship - could lessen the burden.

For the tabloids, such stories are a tradition as rich as Wimbledon's strawberries and cream.

Up until last week, the ingredients for the stories were lacking, but the cupboard became bare only after Andre Agassi pulled out of the tournament with back problems.

Until then, he was a story made in tabloid heaven, the reliable and cherished "sentimental favorite."

As long as he won in the early rounds, the papers would have had their hero, their warrior going into battle one last time and not just for himself. He would be making a stand for older, slightly pudgy bald men everywhere. And the stories would say how he might just go all the way - never mind that he would have had about a zero percent chance of doing so.

A sideshow involving scandal? Not likely. Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, whose past remarks have been offensive and reliably blown out of all proportion, seems to have learned his lesson and has not been talking, the equivalent to the tabloids of a well running dry during a drought.

The tournament favorites, Federer and Sharapova, are not known to have done anything, ever, even remotely scandalous and, further, they seem intent to deny the tabloids the cherished "Celebrities Behaving Badly" stories by refusing to act - on the court or off it - like idiots.

There is always hope. Hewitt still shows flashes of a mixture of arrogance and idiocy so usable in the tabloids. Someone like Greg Rusedski (a Canadian who bills himself as a Brit) could temporarily lose his mind again, as he did two years ago when his head nearly exploded in expletives.

But it might be worth the papers considering sticking with the tennis.

The women's field is deep, with Sharapova, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters and Serena and Venus Williams among others who have a shot at the championship.

And on the men's side, while Federer is the clear favorite, Andy Roddick played some of the best tennis of his career at the Stella Artois tournament at London's Queen's Club earlier this month.

Both players could have substantial early tests.

In Federer's bracket are Juan Carlos Ferrero, Hewitt and Marat Safin, who defeated the champion in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January.

Roddick's second-round opponent is likely to be Ivo Karlovic, the 6-foot-10 Croatian who knocked Hewitt out in the first round two years ago and who gave Roddick a tough match at Queen's, losing both sets in tie-breakers.

And also on the men's side - and, mercifully, a break for the tabloids - there is the spice, if not the threat, provided by Rafael Nadal, the Spanish teenager who won the French Open earlier this month. Not many people think he can go far at Wimbledon. He has a charisma unseen elsewhere in professional tennis these days, though, so if he wins even one match, count on the tabloids running headlines using the words "hunk" and "hero."

The papers would like just as much, though, for there to be a player to hate, because if there is anything the British tabloids like more than heroes it's villains.

John McEnroe's on-court tantrums in 1979 inspired headlines of "Super Brat!" The stories of the disrespectful, loudmouth American were tabloid gold, every bit as valuable as "Elvis Seen At Buckingham Palace." Sports sections weren't worthy of such material. The Brat stories were placed on Page 1.

And it's often forgotten that Agassi, back when his attitude screamed "punk," was assigned the role of villain, becoming a favorite whipping boy of the tabloids until he had the good sense to marry Steffi Graf and discover maturity, evolving into one of sports classiest acts.

"The problem now is there is really nobody to hate - and really no personality to love," said Steve Davies, a sportswriter for The Mail on Sunday. "People can hope Federer loses so someone else gets his day, or they can cheer for him because his skills are such, but nobody can hate the bloke, and I don't know that people are passionately for him."

The tabloids once did see scandal, and often even if it wasn't there. Conspiracy theories about Serena and Venus Williams throwing matches for each other in order to rotate Wimbledon titles were once printed with the same regularity as stories about some member of the monarchy - take your pick - doing something royally stupid.

And the tabloids couldn't have asked for more than the energetic grunting of Monica Seles, which became an actual controversy when opponents complained. The Daily Mirror, sniffing a story, positioned a sound meter courtside so that it could objectively tell the world just how loud Seles was grunting.

Her volume, the paper dutifully reported, reached the same decibel as one would find in a monkey house.

Sharapova can be even louder, but that story's been done. Which will not stop the tabloids from pulling out their annual series of stories on Tim Henman.

If past templates are followed, after Henman wins an early-round match, the tabloids will dutifully write how he was inspired to win for his country and how this could be the year, despite the fact that Henman has about as much chance of winning Wimbledon this time around as he does of getting taller.

Nevertheless, the story line will be milked until Henman is eliminated.

"The Henman story will be there again," Atkin said. "What else the reporters come up with will depend on the weather: If it rains and there are delays and the reporters get bored and have nothing to write, you watch. They'll get quite creative."

At a glance

Schedule: Play begins tomorrow. Women's singles final is July 2, men's singles final is July 3.

Defending singles champions: Roger Federer of Switzerland; Maria Sharapova of Russia.

Prize money: $1,146,600 to the men's champion; $1,092,000 to the women's champion.

TV: ESPN2, ESPN Classic, chs. 11 and 4.

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