Steffi Graf looking to get back on winning trackSunny skies matched Martina Hingis' mood Sunday on the practice court, where she mixed confident shots with grins and giggles, enjoying life at the top and making the game look easy.
It figures to become a bit more difficult this week, when the world's best player begins defense of her Wimbledon title in a battle of the ages.Hingis, 17, has led the women's game into an exciting new era, but a group of established stars - led by seven-time champion Steffi Graf - hope to forestall the future.
Other players from the past with a chance to challenge Hingis include Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Jana Novotna. Representing the teen-age vanguard are Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Anna Kournikova and Mirjana Lucic.
"It's a new generation. It's a different world these days," Hingis said. "Today's players - like me, Anna, the Williams sisters, Mirjana Lucic too - we all have our different style. That makes the game so interesting, so different, so much better."
Hingis, already the winner of four major titles, is the youngest defending champion at Wimbledon in 110 years. But she seized the spotlight in the absence of the 29-year-old Graf, who hasn't played a Grand Slam match in more than a year.
Graf, a loser at the All England Club only twice since 1988, begins her 13th Wimbledon on Monday against Gala Leon Garcia of Spain.
"There are a lot of good players among the women nowadays," Graf said. "The standard is rising, especially with so many exciting youngsters coming into the game.
"I know it will be tough, but I feel quite confident."
Because of the uncommon depth and variety in the women's field, they could eclipse the men for drama during the fortnight.
Ten men have reached the finals of the past five Grand Slams, meaning there's plenty of balance but a lack of star power. Almost by default, Pete Sampras is favored to shake his slump and claim a record-tying fifth Wimbledon title.
Sampras, a flop at three consecutive majors since winning Wimbledon last year, will face Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia in the first match on Centre Court.
"There's just something about Wimbledon - the history, the grass, an intensity - that seems to bring out the best in me," Sampras said. "When I get onto Centre Court, I'm pumped up, and I think the other guys do still fear me."
As usual, big crowds and rain are expected at Wimbledon.
Queues began forming Friday for a limited number of opening-day tickets that go on sale Monday morning. Heavy showers were in the forecast for late this week, an ominous prospect for fans and players who endured record rainfall last year.
"If it rains, I'm going to leave," Serena Williams pledged.
Williams and the other teen queens are on one side of the women's draw, while Graf and Seles are in the other half, making a generation gap likely in the final.
Among the emerging youngsters, Kournikova poses perhaps the biggest threat, although her health is in question because of a thumb injury suffered last week in a tournament at Eastbourne.
Among the veterans, Novotna and Sanchez Vicario could be factors. They reached the final Saturday at Eastbourne, with Novotna winning the first grass-court title of her 13-year career.
"I'm like an old wine," said Novotna, 29. "The older I get, the better I get."
But the most tantalizing scenario is a final between Graf and Hingis, who haven't squared off since Hingis became No. 1 in March 1997.
"If Steffi is fit and I finally get a chance to play her, then I would really love that," Hingis said.
Graf, plagued the past two years by knee, back, ankle and hamstring injuries, has said this could be her final Wimbledon. She moved well during two warmup tournaments on grass, and she'll count on her lethal forehand to compensate for any remaining rustiness.
"Whatever else might go wrong in my game," she said, "my forehand, I'm sure, will always be there."
Not always. But for now, Fraulein Forehand is back, ensuring that this Wimbledon will be special.