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Baseliners are splendid in the grass

There is one less truth in tennis these days: Packing a serve-and-volley game for Wimbledon no longer is required in order to leave with the sterling silver champion's trophy.

It had seemed essential in years past, when two-stroke aces Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker were dominating at the All-England Club. Since 1975, seven of the 10 Wimbledon men's winners were serve-and-volleyers, and four of the seven female champions employed that style.

But baseliners increasingly have been pushing through the cracks, stealing bits of a championship thought not to belong to them.

Andre Agassi is widely considered the person who got the baseline gang all riled up over playing _ and winning _ on grass. His startling conquest of the 1992 Wimbledon marked the first for a baseliner since Bjorn Borg won five straight from 1976-1980.

Since then, baseliners who were reserved about their Wimbledon chances are confident. And others who had stayed away from Wimbledon altogether are giving it a go.

"I think that after I came through and won the tournament, some of these baseliners now are feeling like they have a shot," Agassi said last year. "They're just not going to go away just because somebody comes in and hits a volley."

Jim Courier of Dade City legitimized Agassi's '92 triumph for baseliners by reaching the 1993 final (he lost to Pete Sampras, a serve-and-volleyer). Last year, four of the eight seeded male players to reach the fourth round were baseliners, and the women's champion, Conchita Martinez, was a renowned baseliner who skipped the event the first four years of her career.

That Sergi Bruguera, the two-time French Open champion, was one of those fourth-round players was particularly striking. After first- and second-round losses in 1989 and 1990, respectively, the Spanish star didn't even bother to show up at Wimbledon for three years, figuring his baseline game was just going to scar his record with yet another early-round loss.

But after seeing the successes of Agassi and Courier, he gave Wimbledon a shot last year, and reached the fourth round, his best result there to date.

"I had a bit more confidence," said Bruguera, who pulled out of Wimbledon last week citing injury.

Said Martinez: "I changed my attitude (about grass) to be more positive and thinking that I can play well on grass."

Other baseliners are venturing out on grass, too. Mary Pierce, who lives in Bradenton, is bringing her baseline game to Wimbledon this year for the first time in the six years she's been playing Grand Slam events. Fourth-year pro Alberto Berasategui, another baseliner, entered Wimbledon for the first time this year, but withdrew due to injury.

Some baseliners who are expected to do better than in the past include Michael Chang, Wayne Ferreira, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Iva Majoli, Chanda Rubin, Kimiko Date and Pierce.

Still, some baseliners remain reluctant. Thomas Muster, the reigning French Open champion, is staying away after losing in the first round the past three years.

"Day in and day out," Sampras of Tampa said, "a good serve-and-volleyer should win over a good baseliner."

So what's behind this emergence of baseline prosperity at Wimbledon? Sampras, the reigning two-time Wimbledon champion, thinks the key is the return of serve. Baseliners are better able to handle the 120-plus mph serves of their serve-and-volley comrades, and thus stay in the points longer.

Others contend baseliners today have become more aggressive, and look to end points more quickly than their predecessors.

"They don't have baseline games anymore, they play attacking baseline," said Roland Jaeger, father of ex-pro Andrea Jaeger and teaching pro at Saddlebrook Resort. "They may not go to the net all the time, but they're going after the ball more and moving in behind it."

The continued good fortune of baseliners this year could depend in part on the weather. Many tennis experts believe if the weather stays dry and hot, the grass courts will tend to get harder, giving the ball more of a bounce, which suits baseliners.

"Borg won a lot of his matches when the grass was worn and dry," Jaeger noted.

If nothing else, the variety in playing style on grass has added some spice to the grass-court game, which usually gets slammed every year for lacking drama because of the typically short points created by serve-and-volley types.

"It's much more entertaining," Jaeger said. "I think that's what people like to see."