Change in air at Wimbledon; Williams sisters look to grab another title

Sunday, June 22nd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) -- Pete Sampras is out. So is the curtsy.

The men are considering setting up alternative tournaments if the Grand Slams don't fork over more money. The women are launching a new marketing campaign.

Change is in the air at tennis' most tradition-laden event.

There is one constant, though, as Wimbledon opens Monday: Serena and Venus Williams are counting on going far this fortnight.

"You've got to give the Williams sisters credit for what they've done for the women's game," tournament referee Alan Mills said. "They've brought it to new heights."

Serena Williams can be forgiven if she's already looking ahead to the semifinals at the grass-court major. That's when she could face Justine Henin-Hardenne, the Belgian who ended Williams' 33-match Grand Slam winning streak at the French Open.

That loss was disconcerting to Williams for several reasons.

It ended her bid for a calendar-year Slam. Her play was poor for stretches. The crowd cheered when she faulted. And she felt Henin-Hardenne breached good sportsmanship by not acknowledging a timeout called as Williams missed a serve.

"I thought I was playing well, but looking back, I didn't play well," Williams said, "so it's actually encouraging to know that players really are struggling and fighting -- and cheating" to try to beat her.

She wiped away tears at the postmatch news conference in Paris and vowed to "be a little stronger next time." Well, next time against the Belgian could arrive July 3.

"Obviously it hurt, and I've been very tough on myself since that defeat," the top-ranked Williams said. "I've been working really hard with my dad, and I'm really determined."

She begins defending her Wimbledon title Tuesday against Jill Craybas, an American ranked 66th. In a preserved tradition, the honor of opening Centre Court goes to reigning men's champion Lleyton Hewitt, who will face qualifier Ivo Karlovic on Monday. Andy Roddick -- whose booming serve and new coach (Brad Gilbert) helped win his first grass-court title at Queen's Club -- Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport and Chanda Rubin also play Monday.

Venus Williams, the 2000-01 champion, plays Slovakian qualifier Stanislava Hrozenska on Court 2, the so-called "Graveyard of Champions" and site of Sampras' second-round loss to George Bastl last year.

For the first time since 1988, Wimbledon will go on without Sampras, a seven-time champion who hasn't played since beating Andre Agassi for the U.S. Open title.

"You don't win a tournament again and again without there being some meat to the bone. ... If you've done that a few times, there's a heck of a chance that the environment itself really lends to your game in a certain way that makes you pretty darn tough to beat," Agassi said. "Pete at Wimbledon is a great example."

Sampras' withdrawal was one of several, including fellow past champion Goran Ivanisevic, Marat Safin, Monica Seles and Amelie Mauresmo.

Of the women hoping to challenge the Williams family's three-year hold on the championship, each has a shortcoming.

Henin-Hardenne fell during a match Saturday, injuring her left (non-racket) hand. Clijsters never won a major. Jennifer Capriati hasn't won a title in 17 months. Davenport has a toe injury. Rubin, who won the grass-court tuneup at Eastbourne for the second straight year, never made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon.

Plus, take a look at the Williams' career records against other women ranked in the top 20: a combined 161-39, an .805 winning percentage. Indeed, only one player has a winning mark against either sister. That's Vera Zvonareva, 1-0 against Venus thanks to her fourth-round surprise at the French Open.

They could meet at the same stage at Wimbledon.

"You definitely learn more when you lose," Venus said. "To win everything throughout your whole career is almost impossible."

The sisters have won six of the past eight Slams. They'll also defend their Wimbledon doubles title.

They're featured in the WTA Tour's marketing effort unveiled Sunday at a cottage in Wimbledon village. The new slogan: "Get in touch with your feminine side." The campaign kicked off with four London-area billboards, and the tour produced a 30-second TV ad.

"It's something new and fresh and cute, and it'll draw attention," Capriati said.

WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said his group isn't prepared to join the ATP in exploring alternative tournaments for players who want to skip a Grand Slam if disagreements with the majors about prize money and other issues aren't resolved.

"We have a different agenda," 12th-seeded Magdalena Maleeva said.

Scott said his tour's main concern is getting all Grand Slams to offer equal prize money to men and women (the U.S Open and Australian Open do). At Wimbledon, the men's champion will receive about $965,000, the women's $895,000.

That's a tradition Scott said is more about principle than payouts.

In a, ahem, bow to modernity, players no longer will be required to curtsy or bow toward the Royal Box at Centre Court.

Four-time semifinalist Tim Henman, for one, was a bit chagrined.

"It was always worth a break of serve for me," said Henman, who hopes to become the first British male champion since 1936. "Most of the opponents that hadn't played on Centre Court were nervous about getting it wrong. When we finally got it over and done with, they were so relieved, they missed a few first serves."