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Sampras feels at home; Agassi, Capriati also win

By Howard Fendrich The Associated Press
Tuesday June 25, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England — Back home on Centre Court at the All England Club, Pete Sampras served just like Pete Sampras. 

And, rather out of character, so did Andre Agassi. 

Both won straight-set openers at Wimbledon, as did Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and every other top player in action Monday. Indeed, the day’s only significant surprise was the beautiful weather: temperatures in the 70s with nary a rain cloud. 

Casting aside the better part of two years’ worth of poor play and a rib strain that put his participation in doubt, seven-time champion Sampras swatted 27 aces and 40 other winners in defeating Martin Lee of Britain 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-3. 

Sampras hasn’t won a title since Wimbledon in 2000, a drought of 29 tournaments, and entered with a 16-13 match record this year, including a French Open first-round loss. 

Once again, though, grass gave his game a lift. 

“You step out on Centre Court, it’s like Mecca out there,” said Sampras, who at No. 6 has his lowest seeding here in 11 years. “The U.S. Open, French Open — those are great events, but Centre Court at Wimbledon, there’s something very special whenever you step out there. 

“I feel like I kind of came back home today.” 

Others winning comfortably included No. 2-seeded Marat Safin, No. 5 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and No. 7 Jelena Dokic. U.S. players went 13-5, with No. 11 Andy Roddick and No. 29 James Blake advancing when opponents quit, citing illness, while trailing. 

Adding to the predictability was Anna Kournikova’s fourth straight first-round exit from a tourney. 

She battled but lost 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 to 21st-seeded Tatiana Panova. Then Kournikova snapped at a BBC-TV interviewer’s query about her confidence, saying, “I just don’t think you should phrase the question that way,” and asking that the taped segment start over. The network aired the whole scene. 

Four lower-seeded players lost: No. 19 Juan Ignacio Chela, No. 21 Max Mirnyi, No. 24 Alexandra Stevenson (a 1999 semifinalist), and No. 31 Nicole Pratt. 

With neither men’s finalist from the previous year back for the first time since 1931, organizers asked Sampras to open the tournament on Centre Court. Because of the injury he picked up over the weekend, Sampras asked to start Tuesday. 

The best Wimbledon could do was let him play third Monday. 

So 1992 champion Agassi was given the honor of unwrapping the main court, and he was superb in topping Harel Levy 6-0, 6-4, 6-4. 

Agassi is seeded third as he tries to set a Wimbledon record for most years between singles titles. 

“If you could only win one, you’d be crazy not to pick this one,” said Agassi, who took the first set in 18 minutes. “On top of that, it’s just a big accomplishment for me to still be out here contending 10 years later.” 

He’s chasing his eighth major title, second among active players to Sampras’ record 13, and is one of just five players with a career Grand Slam. 

Against Levy, Agassi returned serve well, as always, and hit strokes at all the right angles from steps inside the baseline. 

That’s his style. 

More impressively, Agassi summoned someone else’s playbook: He fired 16 aces, sometimes a week’s worth for him, and won the point on 14 of 16 trips to the net. 

When told of his serving proficiency, Agassi laughed, saying: “Wow, serving big! Sometimes I can get streaky with my first serve. But I don’t count on those aces — I’m looking to move the ball around.” 

How one-sided was the match? 

Levy raised his arms in self-mocking triumph after winning his first game. Later, a fan’s yell of, “Come on, Levy, you can do it,” drew loud laughter from other spectators. 

French Open champion Williams followed on Centre Court and was nearly perfect for the 42 minutes it took to overpower Evie Dominikovic of Australia 6-1, 6-1. 

Amazingly, Williams had 20 winners to one unforced error. 

On Tuesday, her older sister Venus opens her quest to become the first woman to win three straight Wimbledon titles since Steffi Graf in 1991-93. Venus faces Jane O’Donoghue of Britain. 

“We both have to stay focused,” Serena said, “because we’re the people to beat now.” 

They’ve won six of the past 11 majors, and met in the finals at two of the past three. With Venus seeded No. 1, and Serena No. 2, they could make Wimbledon another Sister Slam. 

The player given the best chance of thwarting that is No. 3 Capriati, who’s won three of the past six Grand Slam tournaments and reached the semis at the others. 

Just to clarify the warmth of her relationship with the Williams sisters, Capriati said: “We don’t go and have tea together, that’s for sure.” 

She pulled out a 6-1, 6-4 victory over 41st-ranked Slovakian Janette Husarova almost despite herself, with six double faults and 24 unforced errors to 16 winners. 

Sampras was hardly perfect against the left-handed Lee. 

He had 13 double faults and seemed slow to the net occasionally. At some junctures, including when Lee wasted eight break points in Sampras’ first two service games, Sampras was fortunate to be facing a 116th-ranked player who’s won one of 15 matches in 2002. 

Still, Sampras was saved by his serve, which consistently neared 130 mph. 

A quick glimpse at why he’s been so dominant on grass — winning 56 of 57 matches at Wimbledon before being upset in the fourth round last year — came during a few service games Monday: 

— Ace, ace, ace, second-serve ace. 

— Service winner, service winner, ace, ace. 

— Ace, double fault, ace, ace, service winner. 

“There were times today that I felt my serving was unhittable,” he said. “I felt like there were spurts I did play at a pretty high level. But there were spurts I was playing careless.” 

He tracked down a half-dozen drop shots and pronounced the rib injury “a non-issue.” 

“As long as I’m still in,” he said, “I’m a big threat.” 

Notes: The records for time between titles: Evonne Goolagong’s overall mark of nine years (1971, 1980), and Jimmy Connors’ men’s mark of eight (1974, 1982). ... The only other past men’s champion in the field is 1996 winner Richard Krajicek. Playing just his second match since November 2000 because of right elbow surgery, Krajicek beat Franco Squillari 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (5).