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SAMPRAS BEGINS DEFENSE OF WIMBLEDON TITLE TODAY

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Pete Sampras has gotten over his disappointment at losing his bid for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title at the French Open. Now he's seeking a prestigious consolation prize: a second straight Wimbledon title.

As befits the reigning men's champion, the top-seeded Sampras was scheduled to open play on the slick grass of Centre Court at 2 p.m. today (9 a.m. EDT) against fellow American Jared Palmer.British oddsmakers have made Sampras a 5-4 favorite to defend his title. Yet Sampras' luster has dimmed slightly in recent weeks, starting with his quarterfinal loss to Jim Courier at the French Open and continuing with his loss to Todd Martin at the Wimbledon warmup event at Queen's Club.

Sampras was so upset after the loss to Courier - which ended his hopes of becoming the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles - that he snubbed the World Champions' Dinner in Paris.

But with a 1994 record of 49-5, a bullet serve that can be unstoppable on grass and a wicked forehand that has developed into one of the best shots in the game, Sampras is still the man to beat.

"He couldn't be any more confident with the way he's performed this year," said Sampras' coach, Tim Gullikson.

What's more, Sampras has a new look for Wimbledon. As part of a reported $18 million contract with Nike, Sampras is wearing long, baggy shorts that look as appropriate on the beach as the tennis court.

Sampras was one of five Wimbledon champions in action on the opening day of the world's most prestigious tournament.

Andre Agassi, the 1992 champion who is seeded No. 12, was paired against rising Italian star Andrea Gaudenzi on Centre Court, followed by nine-time women's champion Martina Navratilova vs. British wild card Claire Taylor.