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The jewel of tennis is a Wimbledon title

It's one of those unspoken truths on the pro tennis tour, the kind no one likes to admit but everyone will tell you.

As much as tour officials would like to believe otherwise, the road to tennis immortality for a player points in only one direction: Wimbledon.

Become the No. 1 player in the world and you'll be internationally known. Win one of tennis' other Grand Slam tournaments _ the French, Australian or U.S. opens _ and you'll have the respect of your tennis peers.

But win Wimbledon, and your place in tennis history is as secure as London's strawberries and cream market.

"I can't put my finger on what it is about Wimbledon," said Bill Shelton, an agent for International Management Group, which represents reigning Wimbledon champion Andre Agassi. "But it's just not the same with the French or the U.S. Open or the Australian Open. Winning Wimbledon somehow doesn't at all get lost in history."

Wimbledon is the quintessential symbol of achievement. Winning tennis' premier grass-court title is like getting 3,000 hits or 500 home runs in baseball. A shot at the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) is almost a given.

Take Pat Cash, for instance. Although he is a Davis Cup star for Australia, his only Grand Slam triumph was in 1987 at Wimbledon. That alone probably will get him a place in Newport, R.I., predicted a Hall of Fame official.

Agassi, who had won fame and fortune on the tour but not a Grand Slam title, validated himself as a player by winning last year's Wimbledon.

"It took Andre to another level," Shelton said. "I think people look on him as more a secured commodity now; he's more believeable."

Said nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova: "To me, (Wimbledon) is just the epitome of what tennis is all about."

So consequential is winning Wimbledon that some players have become virtually obsessed with it. Navratilova and Ivan Lendl have been known to build their schedules around Wimbledon, skipping the French Open clay several times to prepare for the grass-court event.

And although Lendl has won eight Grand Slam titles and been ranked No. 1 in the world, he has implied that his career is somehow incomplete without a Wimbledon title.

"I think it has left a void in his list of accomplishments," said veteran Aussie coach Bob Butterfield, who runs the International Academy of Tennis at East Lake Woodlands. "I think if you asked him, he'd give back one of his French titles and an Australian Open title to take one Wimbledon."

Financially, a victorious romp through the All-England grass can put you on easy street. Actually, you could probably buy it. The Wimbledon prize money is about $530,000 for the men's champion, $450,000 for the women's winner.

That's just for starters. A Wimbledon singles title brings increased exhibition requests, appearance fees (for the men's champion; the women's tour doesn't allow them) and endorsement offers. That translates into lots of money.

"Winning Wimbledon one time, if the marketing was handled properly, would more or less provide for that player for life," said Phil de Picciotto of Advantage International, which represents four-time Wimbledon victor Steffi Graf. "At the very least, you're talking about a minimum of a million dollars. Long term, you're looking at multimillions."

For repeat winners like Navratilova and two-time champion Stefan Edberg, the monetary gains are minimal because they're expected to win. But for a long-shot titlist, the take can double and even triple, de Picciotto said.

Boris Becker is the classic case. When he won the first of his three Wimbledon crowns in 1985, he was a virtual unknown, coming into the tournament unseeded and becoming the youngest Wimbledon winner ever at 17.

It's believed that Wimbledon championship was worth more than $5-million to him. "It may have been worth far more than $10-million," de Picciotto said.

Clearly, what makes Wimbledon so unique is, well, it's uniqueness. Wimbledon is tennis' Jurassic Park, a throwback to the days when grass-court tennis ruled the sport and the game was played by "ladies" and "gentlemen" as opposed to "men" and "women." Tennis, in fact, was born in England in the late 1800s, and Wimbledon was the first offspring.

That century of tradition never is lost on the players and spectators. Hence, all the stodgy rules about players wearing white on court, the daily 2 p.m. starting times on Centre Court and the meager corporate signage on the grounds.

As a result, Wimbledon has taken on a greater aura than any other tournament. It's one of those events that's referred to by site (Wimbledon) more than name (The Championships). It gets preferential treatment from network TV, which televises its men's and women's finals live on separate days.

Navratilova has gone so far as to plant a soft kiss on the grass courts upon her arrival there.

"Guys get totally consumed with the place and the tradition and everything. Your first time there can be a nerve-wrecking experience," Butterfield said. "It's just one of those places where if you're lucky enough to walk the grounds and be a part of one of the world's greatest events, it's something every player treasures and dreams to do."

Wimbledon facts

What: The Championships.

When: Monday through July 4.

Where: Wimbledon, England.

Surface: Grass.

Defending champions: Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi.

Field: 128 men and women.

TV: HBO provides early-round coverage. NBC will broadcast live the women's final (9 a.m. July 3) and men's final (9 a.m. July 4).

Fry's pick: Michael Stich and Martina Navratilova.

Up next:WEDDINGS

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