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All England fortnight set to begin

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000

In three weeks, Tiger Woods and I are getting together in Scotland, to see if his 15-stroke U.S. Open domination transfers to the British Open, following the Pebble Beach smackover with a challenge at golf's original grand cathedral, the Old Course at St. Andrews.

* * *

His quest. Our pleasure.

On the way, I'm stopping by London for a double-dip tennis dessert: seeing if Pete Sampras wins Wimbledon a seventh time, plus watching an intriguing gallery of power women -- Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce, the Williams sisters and glamour-hyped Anna Kournikova -- working to prohibit Lindsay Davenport from repeating as champion. I've got some job, huh?

It's now 40 years or so being paid to watch sports, being allowed daily newspaper space to expound, describe and express opinions.

Wimbledon/British Open, it's a multiple treasure that pretty much eradicates any mundane recollections of a sports writer's scrimmages with bland hotels, crowded airplanes, nasty deadlines, late-night fast food and grouchy jocks.

Not crowing, just cooing.

In a sweet U.K. package -- thanks, too, to a 5-hour advantage in time zones -- the world's biggest tennis happening followed, after a week's respite, by the most history-endowed tournament in golf.

Is this sports-writer heaven?

I'd better clam up. Keep all this to yourself, okay? Some boss of mine might get ideas about usurping this journey. If anybody asks, tell them it's just another newspaper trip to a couple of everyday ballgames. Yeah, like a Rolls Royce is just four wheels and The Beatles just another rock band.

For now, with Wimbledon opening Monday, let's give Tiger a rest. He'll be in Orlando a little longer, counting his money and honing extreme golfing abilities for St. Andrews. Question is, will Duval, Els, Love, Montgomerie, Singh and others be better at keeping up this time?

For now, tennis.

For the coming fortnight, which is Brit-speak for two weeks, the hot deal happens in the classy, green-grassed London suburb of Wimbledon, taking its summertime as epicenter of the sports universe.

Sampras has been stumbling through Europe, a quick wipeout at the French Open plus a 6-4, 6-4 thumping by Australian teen Lleyton Hewitt in a Wimbledon tuneup. Still, the Californian, via Tampa and now Orlando, has a champ's smile, presumably because he just got engaged. Church Road has always been Pete's street, the Big W lawns his house of smashing control, so how do you enter the famed fortnight without anticipation of Sampras ruling a seventh time?

He is 46-1 at the past seven Wimbledons, losing only a 1996 quarterfinal match to eventual champion Richard Krajicek. Andre Agassi lost last year's final 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 and declared of Sampras, "He walked on water today." Uh, reigned on grass.

Agassi returns, but his back aches from a spill two weeks ago at Queen's Club. Another all-American windup July 9 is feasible, but don't be shocked if the 19-year-old Hewitt, the seventh seed, makes big noise along with somebody from a platoon of grass-court specialists: Tim Henman, Pat Rafter, Greg Rusedski and Krajicek.

Henman carries a local load. Britons become annually ravenous for a countryman who is a serious trophy threat. Old folks will wonder if Tim really can become the first Englishman to be singles king since Fred Perry in 1936. Youngsters will paint faces, wave placards, screech at Centre Court and give rock-star treatment to "Our Tim."

Frankly, the Wimbledon men's side, despite captivating Sampras and Agassi story lines plus Henman and Hewitt sidebars, has considerably less zip than an overload of magnetic possibilities among women contenders.

Davenport, the Californian who looms mightily at 6 feet 2, has been slumping. Wimbledon may rekindle her touch, but a flurry of rivals will apply unyielding heat.

Hingis has known the feeling, holding high the huge platter at the All England Club, but not even her mega-focused mind can easily forget last year's horrendous first-round loss. Wimbledon policymakers seeded Hingis first, followed by Davenport and French Open winner Pierce.

Pierce's skills are similar to Davenport's. Big serve. Powerful groundstrokes. Consistency has forever been a difficult catch for Pierce, although her Paris performance indicated a new level of stability.

Don't forget "The Shot."

It was one of those showy, between-the-legs swish of a racket, putting a circus hit on a tennis ball. Flamboyant guys have done it for years. But the Pierce 'tweener was unique. Moving hard right at the baseline, the 5-foot-11 athlete leaped maybe 16 inches into the French air, executing the shot while astonishingly afloat.

On the WTA tour, Pierce's nickname is "The Body." She's far more. Old differences with father/teacher Jim Pierce have ebbed. She's in love with Cleveland Indians second baseman Robbie Alomar, who has known controversy of his own. Will the new bundle of Pierce peace mean a dandy fortnight at Wimbledon? You never know.

It's difficult to figure where the tennis games and youthful minds of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are geared as Wimbledon begins. They've had slumps, funks and injuries. Both have the speed and skills to be strong in this most dynamic of events.

Then, there's Monica Seles. I've spent my professional life working at being impartial, but can I apply for a bit of a fortnight pass? Because of what she's been through, now working with grace to regain the greatness stripped away by an assailant's knife, I plan to quietly pull hard for Seles.

Let the mighty weeks begin. I'll be sending e-mails. See you soon, Tiger.


Monday through July 9. TV: TNT, Ch. 8.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis are focused and ready.

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