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Slumping Sampras still tabbed for 5th title

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He tends to hang his head, and lately with good reason. In the battle against burnout, Pete Sampras is losing.

When Wimbledon begins Monday, the four-time champion must try to shake a lengthy slump. He has failed to reach the semifinals in the past three Grand Slams and briefly lost the No. 1 ranking to Marcelo Rios before regaining it.At 26, Sampras admits he lacks motivation and needs a vacation. He watches 35-year-old Michael Jordan hold yet another championship trophy, and like the rest of the world, Sampras marvels.

"That's one person whose advice I'd love to get," he said. "I'm trying to get it set up to play golf with him and pick his brain for a little bit and see how he has stayed motivated through the years."

The golf date must wait. The game Monday will be tennis, and the opponent will be Dominik Hrabty, a Slovakian ranked 47th with little experience on grass.

They'll play the first Centre Court match at 2 p.m., weather permitting. Rain plagued last year's tournament, and frequent showers in the past month have officials fearing a repeat.

There's another concern: While tennis struggles to increase its popularity, the sport's most hallowed event may be overshadowed by the World Cup in France.

Sampras has other worries.

Because he has won Wimbledon four of the past five years, oddsmakers and opponents agree he remains the man to beat. London bookies made the American a 6-4 favorite.

"This year has been somewhat of a slump for him, but Wimbledon is certainly a place where he could dig out of it," Andre Agassi said.

"Maybe he doesn't have the energy for another year here, but I don't get the feeling he's too concerned about it. That leads me to believe either he doesn't care, or he's about to play a lot better."

Burnout isn't an issue for 17-year-old Martina Hingis, an 8-11 favorite to repeat as the women's champion.

The top-ranked Hingis caught a break because three teen-age rivals - Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova - are grouped together in another part of the draw. At least two of them will be eliminated before the quarterfinals.

In the other half of the bracket, two veterans staging comebacks hope to reach the final. Injury-plagued seven-time champion Steffi Graf plans to play her first Grand Slam in more than a year, while Monica Seles seeks an encore to her surprising second-place showing at the French Open.

The men's field, by contrast, suffers from a dearth of depth. Boris Becker is absent, Rios hates grass and Agassi last won a Wimbledon match three years ago. Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, each hoping to become the first Brit to win the men's title since 1936, must play carrying the weight of a nation's expectations.

The 1996 champion, Richard Krajicek, is the only player to beat Sampras at Wimbledon in the past five years and poses the biggest threat. But Sampras has recently shown himself capable of losing to anyone, including:

- Karol Kucera in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open;

- Wayne Ferreira in the third round at Lipton;

- Fabrice Santoro - by a stunning 6-1, 6-1 score - in the third round at Monte Carlo;

- Ramon Delgado in the second round at the French Open;

- Mark Woodforde in the third round last week at Queen's Club, a grass-court event.

None is a top-20 player.

"Motivation-wise, Pete's not there," Woodforde said.

Sampras called the statement "pretty accurate."

"This year it's not easy getting motivated each week I play," he said. "But I have no problem getting motivated for Wimbledon. Come 2 o'clock Monday, it's kind of like coming home."

Sampras blames his burnout on a calf injury in a Davis Cup match last November. By the time he com-pleted rehabilitation, it was time for another season to begin.

Because he wants to retain the No. 1 ranking, Sampras will wait until the end of this year to take a break.

"Part of you wants to chill out a little bit," he said. "But there's nothing I can do about it now."

Perhaps the chance to make history will provide the incentive that has been missing. A successful fort-night would give Sampras five Wimbledon titles, matching Bjorn Borg's record, and 11 Grand Slam crowns, one shy of Roy Emerson's record.

In the past, grass has been a cure-all for any Sampras slump.

"It's much more instinctive tennis, and that's why he has been so successful," said his coach, Paul Annacone.

"Pete plays better when it's instinctive and he doesn't have a lot of time to think about stuff."