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Sampras, Graf Become Old Reliables

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While others around them lose their heads, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf can be counted on to keep theirs. The defending Wimbledon champions seem to be the only tennis players here capable of playing up to their station.

The dust has settled after the first week of a very wild Wimbledon and the two top-seeded players remain, having won their third round matches on Saturday. After the upsets that have decimated the field this week, that’s an accomplishment.

This is the week that was: Eleven of the 16 seeded players on the men’s side were eliminated, either through defeat or injury. Among the wreckage were former champions Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov and top 10 players Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Thomas Enqvist.

Half the top women have been eliminated, including the crowd-pleasing Monica Seles.

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It is first time since seeding began at Wimbledon in 1927 that the second week will begin with so few seeded players.

Todd Martin, who won Saturday, is the only seeded player remaining in the bottom half of the draw. It is now possible for Martin to reach the final without having faced a seeded player.

Play will restart on Monday after the traditional first Sunday break, and the London oddsmakers, at least, will need the off day to regroup.

There was more destruction Saturday, as two more seeded players lost on the men’s side and one seeded woman fell. Magnus Gustafsson defeated 11th-seeded Wayne Ferreira, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 1-6, 5-7, 6-1. Patrick Rafter defeated 14th-seeded Marc Rosset, 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3. Fifth-seeded Anke Huber could not overcome an upset stomach and Ai Sugiyama, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.

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“It’s been a strange Wimbledon, the strangest one I’ve been to in all my years coming to Wimbledon, with all the upsets,” Sampras said. “The soccer was so popular [the European Championships, which end today], it seemed like Wimbledon has kind of taken a backseat this year. But there are still a lot of great players still playing, and I’m still around.”

That comes as a great relief to officials at the All England Club, where the combination of the European Championships and fan indifference to the dominance of the lesser-known players has sent attendance down. Network executives worldwide too have mourned the exit of Agassi, who is said to be good for at least a ratings point.

Things seemed more normal with the steadying presence of Sampras and Graf, who aren’t troubled by the same upsets and injuries that affect mere mortals.

Each won Saturday to move into the quarterfinals. Sampras teetered at first, on a cold and gray day, but he defeated Karol Kucera of Slovakia, 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-3).

Graf had less trouble defeating Nicole Arendt of New Jersey, 6-2, 6-1, although Arendt won the first nine points and the first two games. When Graf won the first point on her second service game, the Centre Court crowd facetiously applauded.

The tournament has a different shape to this point than last year, when form was rigidly followed. All four top-seeded players on the men’s and women’s sides advanced to the semifinals. The second week will be much more austere this time. Fans will have to content themselves with a men’s final 16 that offers only six of the top 20, a qualifier ranked No. 223, and only two players who have won Grand Slam titles, Sampras and Michael Stich.

No one has been able to analyze what has caused the upsets. It may be seen as several, coincidental bad days by top players. It may also be viewed as a kind of viral outbreak, where, once Agassi was felled by a qualifier, all the lower-ranked players took heart and gained confidence.

Martin, seeded No. 13, called the week “peculiar,” but rather than seeing the loss of the name players as a negative, he saw it as an added freshness.

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“I think it adds a bit of interest to the game,” Martin said. “It’s nice to see new names and for the players, I think it’s great because there are a lot of players here that have done well who never would have experienced something like this.”

Stich agreed. “Nowadays, there are so many players who do well on grass and have a lot of confidence, it’s not surprising that the seeds are having a hard time,” he said.

Friday’s loss was the second-seeded Becker, who retired from his third-round match. Becker, after consulting with three German doctors in London with the German soccer team, was found to have partially torn the ulnar tendon in his right wrist. He was told that if he had attempted to serve Friday, the tendon would have ruptured.

Becker will be fitted with a plastic cast for four weeks and said he hoped to play in the U.S. Open.


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