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Wimbledon play commences in weather unusually mild

WIMBLEDON, England -- Wimbledon opened today with sunny skies, mild temperatures and Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis as the top-seeded players.

The world's most prestigious tennis tournament has been plagued by rain in recent years, but the forecast was good through Tuesday, with plenty of sunshine expected.Play began simultaneously on 16 courts. Sampras, a five-time champion, was to face Scott Draper in the opening match on Centre Court.

Sampras' foremost challengers are expected to include Andre Agassi, who opens Tuesday. Agassi will try to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

"It can happen," said Agassi, seeded fourth. "I've stopped telling myself things can't be done."

This could be Agassi's best shot at Wimbledon since he won the tournament for his first major title in 1992.

"Obviously he'd like to join Borg," said Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert. "That's incredible company. Hopefully, his performance in Paris will inspire him."

London oddsmakers listed Agassi as a 16-1 choice. Those with lower odds included Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Patrick Rafter and two Brits, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Among the women, Hingis was the 6-4 favorite, followed by Steffi Graf, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and defending champion Jana Novotna.

Agassi opens against Andrei Pavel, a Romanian ranked 66th. Other potential obstacles for him:

--a fourth-round rematch against Tommy Haas, who upset Agassi at Wimbledon last year;

--1996 champion Krajicek in the quarterfinals;

--Rafter or three-time runner-up Goran Ivanisevic in the semifinals;

--Sampras, Henman or Rusedski in the final.

Since winning Wimbledon seven years ago, Agassi's career has been like a series of topspin lobs: up and down.

He was an unseeded U.S. Open champion in 1994, rose to the No. 1 ranking and then fell to No. 141. He failed to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal for 2 1/2 years before winning the French, where he rallied past Andrei Medvedev in the dramatic final.

"People lost faith in what I could do, and understandably so," Agassi said.

Now, at 29, he claims to be playing the best tennis of his life. And he said this comeback will be his last.

"I have no more energy to go down and come back up again," he said. "I'm going to ride this one as long as I can. I know I won't have many more years to enjoy this."

Early in his career, Agassi refused to play Wimbledon because of an aversion to grass courts. He has won only one match at the All England Club since 1995 but nonetheless appreciates the unique challenge the tournament presents.

"I have a different appreciation for it now, no question," he said. "You're part of something that seems bigger than the sport."

Curiously, Agassi's recent resurgence coincides with the breakup of his marriage to actress Brooke Shields. They remain friends and spoke by telephone daily during the French Open. Gilbert suggests that personal turmoil contributed to Agassi's renewed focus on tennis.

"When you have some things going on in your life, it's nice to come back to something that's been good to you," Gilbert said.

"Andre has always had the game. The problem has been his brain. As long as he's hungry and has the passion, he's going to play well."