Agassi, Roddick lead the way

By HOWARD FENDRICH

The Associated Press

WIMBLEDON, England – My, how Andre Agassi has changed his tune.

Years ago, he mocked Wimbledon's grass and its all-white dress code, preferring to play golf back home in Las Vegas while others played tennis in England.

This month, he made a special trip to the All England Club because, well, membership has its privileges. Singles champions are accorded honorary membership, and Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992 for the first of his eight Grand Slam titles.

“Being a member of this club makes you consider moving, it's so special,” he said. “So when I'm here, I do enjoy the opportunity to take advantage of it, practicing here, having a cup of tea.”

Andy Roddick would love such an opportunity, and he could be poised to start his major championship collection.

He certainly doesn't lack confidence.

“The first one's always the toughest to get. The biggest fear is the fear of the unknown. If you haven't done it before, you don't know yet,” Roddick said. “But I'm starting to believe in myself, and I'm definitely here to try to win this tournament.”

Based on the first three rounds, Agassi and Roddick look to be headed for a showdown in the final, and what a matchup that would be: one 33, the other 20; one the game's top returner, the other its top server right now. Roddick has won 46 of the 47 games he's served, saving five of the six break points faced, a run comparable to those Pete Sampras put together in winning seven Wimbledon titles.

And there's this link: After a first-round exit at the French Open, Roddick teamed up with Brad Gilbert, Agassi's former coach.

When play resumes Monday after the traditional middle Sunday off, they will have to get past a couple of big hitters to reach the quarterfinals.

The second-seeded Agassi faces ace machine Mark Philippoussis, three times a Wimbledon quarterfinalist but unseeded this year after a series of left knee injuries. No. 5 Roddick plays No. 12 Paradorn Srichaphan, who pounds the ball off both wings and upset Agassi in the second round in 2002.

Agassi is chasing some history. He would be the oldest Wimbledon champion in the Open era, and the 11-year gap since his other title would be the biggest in tournament history (Bill Tilden won in 1920, 1921 and 1930).

While Agassi and French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero are the only men left who own Grand Slam titles, the women's field still has six major champions: Serena and Venus Williams, who split the past three Wimbledon trophies, plus Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Mary Pierce.

There's also Kim Clijsters, twice a French Open finalist, who has lost a total of seven games so far, and a Grand Slam-record five Russians in the fourth round: Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova, a 16-year-old wild-card entry.

The most intriguing matchup Monday is between Venus Williams and Zvonareva, who dealt the former No. 1 her earliest defeat at a major in two years in the French Open's fourth round.

Serena Williams, the defending champion, has won 20 straight sets at the All England Club. Still, she's not satisfied.

“This is when it gets really serious,” she said. “I'm going to have to pick up my game.”

Agassi knows all about what it takes to get through the grind of seven best-of-five-set matches at a Grand Slam: This is his 37th trip to a major's round of 16.

Roddick, in contrast, has been this far just three times previously, the highlight a semifinal run at the Australian Open in January (Agassi won that title). And he never had been past the third round at Wimbledon.

But after victories over big-serving Greg Rusedski and mix-it-up specialist Tommy Robredo, he's listed by British bookmakers as the 7-4 favorite.

The favorite in the hearts of British fans, of course, is Tim Henman, the host country's only hope to end a 67-year drought since its last male champion. He's been a semifinalist four of the past five years, losing to the eventual champion each time.

So it might gall him a bit to think that his fourth-round opponent, Argentina's David Nalbandian, reached the Wimbledon final a year ago in his very first grass-court tournament at any level.

Henman actually came in a bit more under the radar than he's used to. He entered with a 10-9 record in 2003, after arthroscopic shoulder surgery in December.

“I've had big buildups in previous years,” Henman said. “I'm trying to stay away from that, personally, because you can start getting a little bit ahead of yourself. I realize I've got a lot of work ahead of me. There are a lot of battles to be played and hopefully won.”