Wimbledon: Who's Who At Tennis's Premier Event

Green paint. Green seats. Green backdrops. Green grass. Wimbledon, the world's greenest tennis event starts today with typical color:

* Over 250 players from 41 countries will compete, outfitted in "predominantly white" attire.

* One hundred eighty-two ball boys and girls in eggplant-colored shirts will chase canary yellow balls.

* Tons of scarlet strawberries and gallons of heavy white cream will again be on the menu.

The big question, of course, is: Who will win the world's premier tennis tournament?

The draw

Wimbledon continued its tradition of subjectively ignoring world rankings to please players with grass-court expertise. The 18th-ranked Boris Becker was installed as the eighth seed. Clay court ace Michael Chang, meanwhile, is seeded fifth despite his No. 2 world ranking. (The women's draw was spared such shuffling.) But seven of the top 16 players will be absent, several of them Spaniards unaccustomed to grass.

top billing

After an upbeat 17-0 start this year that secured him three titles including the Australian Open, Pete Sampras has lapsed into inconsistency. If he rediscovers his fluid strokes and flaming serves, there's no credible opposition until a possible quarterfinal showdown against Becker.

Australian Open winner Martina Hingis has lost just one match this year - the French Open final to Iva Majoli. If pomp and circumstance do not overwhelm her, tennis's poster child could give another glimpse of greatness.

On the rise

Mark Philippoussis, the only player to win titles on three different surfaces this year, has the fastest serve on the planet at 142 m.p.h. and a game tailor-made for grass. He has a tough first-round opponent in Greg Rusedski.

Venus Williams is not a legitimate title contender. However much heralded she is as the next great American women's tennis player, her progress will be closely followed.

overdue

Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic are two-time Wimbledon finalists. Last week Kafelnikov won the tournament at Halle, Germany - his first grass-court title - after a bumpy return from an injury-related absence. He returns serves as well as anybody in the game, giving him a distinct advantage in the service-oriented men's game.

Ivanisevic's weapon is an intimidating serve and tit-for-tat returns. He's funny as well, drawing comparisons to Ilie Nastase, the former clown prince of tennis.

French connection

French Open champion Iva Majoli of Croatia has never won a match of any description at Wimbledon - juniors, singles or doubles. Grass troubles her.

Scraggly-haired Gustavo Kuerten vaulted from 88th in the world to 15th this year with his victory at the French. It's hard for a baseliner to make a living at Wimbledon.

others to Watch

Defending champion Richard Krajicek enjoyed a strong early season, with wins in Rotterdam and Tokyo, but has struggled since. A good effort would lift him from one-time wonder status.

Monica Seles has never totally reignited her game since returning from a two-year absence, the result of a spectator's courtside attack during a German event. Slower now, she still has the artillery necessary to win, but no history of doing so at Wimbledon.

Where are they?

A recent surgery will keep seven-time winner Steffi Graf from defending her title. When and if she returns, it's unsure how much she'll compete. Also on the mend is Andre Agassi and last year's surprise finalist, Malivai Washington. The Wimbledon home site (www.wimbledon.org) promises all-day interviews, news, and point-by-point scores.

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