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Defending champ making noise in Wimbledon field

So much about Conchita Martinez of Spain has changed since her Wimbledon triumph a year ago _ except she's still one of the most humble, unadorned Grand Slam champions on the tour.

Even though she has nearly $5-million in career prize money, she rarely travels by limo or charters the Concorde to European tournaments. Want her autograph? It's almost always no problem.

If winning Wimbledon has spoiled her, you wouldn't know it.

"I like to go in the background. I don't like to be in the front," said Martinez. "I'm very shy, and I like to do my own thing. Sometimes if you are too famous, you don't have a private life or privacy."

The way Martinez, 23, has been playing, it's going to be increasingly difficult for her to escape fame. She goes into Monday's opening rounds at Wimbledon as the No. 3 player in the world and a threat to make the two-woman battle between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario a three-way race for the No. 1 ranking.

Her Wimbledon win has elevated her to one of the more complete players in the women's game, that rare pro who is capable of winning on hard, clay, grass or indoor courts.

The one prominent knock on Martinez remains her work ethic. She likely will never be cautioned about overtraining. She tends to devote herself to her craft in spurts instead of seasons, never seemingly bothered if her game takes a dip as a result.

"She lacks ambition," Miquel Mir, who coached Martinez in 1991, told Tennis magazine. "If she plays good for five or six week a year, she's satisfied. For Conchita, working very hard is impossible."

Martinez acknowledges she isn't the hardest working pro on the tour, but if she's loafing, it's scary to think what kind of numbers she'd put up if she doubled her training.

This year, she has yet to lose before the quarterfinals _ something Sanchez Vicario and Mary Pierce can't say. She reached the Australian Open semifinals, then went on a tear, reaching the final at Delray Beach and winning her next four tournaments (Hilton Head, Amelia Island, Hamburg, Rome).

She has skipped the typical WTA TOUR grass-court tournaments leading up to Wimbledon, opting to just practice on grass in preparation for her defense.

"I've been practicing on grass (all week), and I'm having a lot of fun and actually feeling the ball quite good," she said. "I'm going to try to be a bit more aggressive and go a little bit more to the net."

Widely thought to be mostly a clay-court player when she came to Wimbledon last year, Martinez isn't likely to sneak up on the 128-player field this time, and isn't being heavily pushed as a favorite by many tennis experts.

Still, Martinez has a few intangibles on her side: Of the four titles she won last year, she has defended two, with Wimbledon and the U.S. Hardcourts upcoming.

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