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In their defense, titles could be up for grabs

Reigning Wimbledon champions Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi, both limping into Wimbledon with vexatious injuries, probably wish this tradition-rooted tournament would dip back to its early days, when reigning champions had to defend their title merely by playing in the final.

Even that might not ensure Graf or Agassi of a repeat championship given that winning a match was an iffy proposition at best as recently as a week ago. Agassi contemplated surgery as he rested his ailing right wrist (tendinitis) at home in Las Vegas, where he was treated with cortisone shots; Graf spent time in a German hospital for inflamed tissue in her foot.

Both reportedly considered skipping Wimbledon, which starts today.

Graf, whose injured foot was secretly treated in the final days before she won the French Open last month, began practicing just last week, and Agassi's first match since April (he withdrew from the French Open) was a first-round loss to Carl Uwe-Steeb on Tuesday in a Wimbledon tune-up tournament.

Not exactly great confidence builders for a defense of the most-heralded event in tennis.

"Graf, I don't think, has a real problem with her foot and I'd still say she has the best shot at winning if she's healthy," said former Wimbledon winner Tony Trabert, who's a commentator for CBS. "Andre's situation is a little different in that even if he were healthy, I don't think he has a good shot at repeating."

If nothing else, this should be one of the safest Wimbledons in history. Everything from undercover officers to video surveillance cameras will be used to protect the players after the stabbing of Monica Seles at a tournament in Germany in April.

Wimbledon officials hope the emphasis is on the tennis, as Graf's uncertain health coupled with Seles' absence somewhat opens the 128-player women's field. That may be a good thing considering the event has been dominated in recent years by Graf, who has won four of the past five Wimbledons.

Even though Martina Navratilova is 36 and has struggled lately, her chances for a 10th Wimbledon singles title have improved. It didn't hurt when Wimbledon officials disregarded the rankings and seeded her second, ensuring a possible meeting with top-seeded Graf wouldn't happen until the final.

Of course, Navratilova feels she's been a contender all along _ even though as of a week ago, she had played just five Kraft Tour matches since Feb. 21 and had to enter another Wimbledon warm-up last week to get more practice.

"Monica not playing does not make me feel that I can win it more than if she wasn't there," Navratilova told reporters during a conference call from England. "And I hope Steffi is 100 percent because I don't want to win it by default or because the top players are not there. Champions don't run away from challenges."

Other challenges could come from Jennifer Capriati, who isn't having her best season, but was a quarterfinalist last year and a semifinalist the year before. Lori McNeil, who reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1986, probably is the hottest player on grass coming into Wimbledon. She won a grass-court event two weeks ago and upset Gabriela Sabatini at another last week.

"On a good day, players like Brenda Schultz, Gigi Fernandez, Lori McNeil and Jennifer can beat anyone," Navratilova said. "But to win the whole thing, you have to put together some good matches and that narrows it down."

Regardless of Agassi's health, the men's field is up for grabs. Tampa's Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Dade City's Jim Courier and Boris Becker lead a cast of potential winners that includes Richard Krajicek, 1991 winner Michael Stich and Goran Ivanisevic, a finalist last year.

As a result, there'll be showdowns long before the final. If the draw holds up, the hard-serving Krajicek will face Agassi in the fourth round. The winner likely will take on the top-seeded and top-ranked Sampras, who's resting a shoulder injury, in the quarterfinals. Another heavyweight clash in the quarterfinals could be Becker against Stich.

Courier's path toward what would be his first Wimbledon title is filled with pitfalls. After a trio of early-round opponents, he likely will run into 13th-seeded Wayne Ferreira, an accomplished grass-court player who lost a five-setter against Becker in last year's fourth round. From there, Courier probably will encounter Ivanisevic in the quarters and Edberg, a two-time champion, in the semifinals.

"I don't think Courier can win on grass. He doesn't return serve well enough," Trabert said. "Then again, I didn't think Agassi could win on grass last year and he did."

Edberg appears to have the inside track to the title. He doesn't face a big-name opponent until the quarters, where he's likely to meet Ivan Lendl, the 33-year-old veteran who has won every Grand Slam event except this one. Then, it'll probably be either Courier or Ivanisevic in the semis for Edberg.

Courier has plenty of incentive. If he captures the title and Sampras doesn't reach the final, Courier would regain the No. 1 ranking. Entering the tournament, Sampras has a 495-point lead over Courier; the Wimbledon winner gets 530 points.